Gov. Bryant revises his proposed state budget

JACKSON — Gov. Phil Bryant is revising his state budget for the year that begins July 1.

In his new plan, released yesterday, the Republican no longer asks local school districts to dig into their own financial reserves to offset state funding cuts. Instead, he proposes giving elementary and secondary schools, community colleges and universities the same amount of money next year as this year.

He also suggests an extra $3 million for the Mississippi Highway Patrol and another $31.5 million to Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy and disabled. He said the Medicaid money would offset an expected loss in federal support.

Bryant’s original budget, released in January, included 5.5 percent cuts to most state agencies. The new one has cuts of about 1.7 percent for most, which he called a “more comfortable” level.

The revisions come a week after legislators increased the estimate of how much money the state will have available, based on experts’ reports that the state economy is showing signs of slow improvement.

“While it is encouraging to see a small increase in Mississippi’s revenue estimate and while I am also hopeful that the increase is both justified and sustainable, we still must allocate our resources using sound, conservative guidelines,” Bryant said in a document accompanying his new budget.

“Saving for the future is imperative, and fund increases should be appropriated to the state’s highest priorities like public safety, education and obligations to Medicaid,” he said.

Lawmakers are expected to complete a budget by late April. At this point, the House and Senate have passed their own first versions of budget bills with the understanding that several details are expected to change during negotiations between the two chambers.

Mississippi governors have a mixed record of being able to influence budget talks. Lawmakers took many suggestions from Bryant’s two-term predecessor, Republican Haley Barbour, but they also have joked in the past about putting other governors’ budgets directly into the trash.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee voted March 19 to add about $99 million to the budget for fiscal year 2012, which ends June 30, and about $130 million to the budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1. With the changes, the current year’s budget will be 3.5 percent bigger than last year’s, and the next fiscal year’s budget will be 1.3 percent bigger than this year’s.

The revisions were relatively small additions in as a share of the entire budget. The state general fund — the largest portion of state tax-funded spending — will be about $4.6 billion this year and next. Lawmakers are planning to pull money from financial reserves to bring next year’s state spending to about $5.6 billion. That will be supplemented with much larger shares of federal money.

State economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers March 19 that Mississippi’s economic outlook is slightly stronger now than it was a few months ago, although he described the housing sector as “sluggish” and said the state in 2011 marked its fourth straight year of decreased employment levels.

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