Officials looking more closely at state agency budgets

JACKSON — Leaders of Mississippi government agencies are facing scrutiny about everything from office space to travel expenses as they request money for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.

The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee started annual hearings yesterday — the first step in a lengthy process of deciding how to divvy up state tax dollars for everything from schools to prisons to health care. The hearings are open to the public, and they continue through Thursday in the Woolfolk office building near the state Capitol.

“What we’re trying to do this time, this year, is really drill down to some of the individual expenses,” Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who chairs the committee, said after yesterday’s meeting.

In the past, lawmakers specified how much money agencies could spend on certain categories, such as travel, salaries, supplies and office space. For the past two years, they’ve given directors more flexibility to manage a lump sum of money. Reeves said: “What we are now is trying to determine, has that flexibility been good for the taxpayers or has it been not so good for the taxpayers?”

Lawmakers yesterday questioned the state Forestry Commission director about a new radio system the agency is buying. They questioned the state health officer about a request for funds to renovate a 55-year-old office building. They asked a deputy treasurer about personnel expenses and the handling of long-term debt.

Reeves also quizzed Mississippi Development Authority executives about travel costs, particularly about sending 15 employees, at an average of $3,000 each, to the annual Mississippi picnic in New York’s Central Park this past June.

MDA executive director Brent Christensen defended the trip, saying it included meetings with economic prospects plus the picnic.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to combine our economic development and tourism,” Christensen said.

A few agencies, including the Forestry Commission and the state treasurer’s office, are requesting more than 20 percent increases in their budgets.

Treasurer Lynn Fitch’s spokeswoman, Sherri Hilton, issued a statement defending the request.

“Because this office handles hundreds of millions of dollars a day in banking transactions, 25 billion annually, it is imperative that we attract and retain accounting and investment specialists,” Hilton said. “Over the last three years, the Office of the State Treasurer has seen a 48 percent employee turnover rate. The main retention issue is due to staff being underpaid and leaving to work elsewhere.”

MDA is requesting a 3 percent budget increase, and Christensen said part of that would help pay for a trade office that the state wants to open in South Korea. He didn’t offer details.

Reeves praised agencies that are requesting decreases or only modest increases.

The secretary of state’s office and the Insurance Department are requesting decreases. The Department of Agriculture and Commerce is seeking about a 1 percent increase.

State revenue has grown about 5 percent annually for each of the past two years, while spending has increased about 2 percent a year. The Budget Committee will release its spending recommendations in December and the full House and Senate will adopt a budget in the spring.

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