Hearings at end, lawmakers start to craft budget

JACKSON — Now that budget hearings are over, Mississippi lawmakers face a long process of deciding how to spend tax dollars for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.

The 14 members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee held four days of public hearings last week and quizzed agency leaders about how money is already being spent on programs large and small.

“I think that’s the job we’ve now got — to evaluate how they’re spending their money, what did they get, what did they spend it on last year, what do they plan to spend it on next year, why is there an increase, what do they want that money for,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said after the hearings ended. “Those are the kinds of questions that we now have to evaluate and make judgment calls on.”

In December, the committee will release a budget blueprint, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will release his own separate set of spending recommendations. All 122 House members and 52 senators will vote on a final budget by late March or early April, if they stay on schedule.

Mississippi’s current budget is about $5.8 billion. State economist Darrin Webb predicts Mississippi will continue to see modest growth, and lawmakers say the 2015 budget will be slightly larger.

A few agencies are seeking budget decreases, but most requested an increase of about 5 percent to 25 percent. The Department of Revenue requested a 66 percent increase, with Commissioner Ed Morgan saying the department needs to hire more employees. He said the department had answered only 26 percent of customer calls in the past year.

“It’s unacceptable,” Morgan said. “It’s an embarrassment to us.”

The Department of Public Safety requested a 45 percent increase, and lawmakers grilled DPS executives about pay raises and vehicles. Several lawmakers said DPS has not fulfilled promises to replace outdated vehicles that state troopers are driving. Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz said the agency bought 15 vehicles for one of its divisions, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.

Budget writers also questioned the Forestry Commission about multi-year financing to buy radios for a statewide emergency communications system, and asked the director of the state Wireless Communication Commission whether local governments or other users should pay fees to be on the system.

The Department of Education sought full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, as required by law. Although lawmakers were generally cordial about the request, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said other parts of government would be shortchanged if legislators pump an additional $264.5 million into MAEP, as requested. The formula is designed to ensure that schools receive enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. It was put into law in 1997 and phased in over several years, but has been fully funded only two years.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who heads the Budget Committee, said “the vast majority” of agency directors presented wish lists that were “somewhat reasonable and somewhat rational in size.”

“Now, there were exceptions, and I think you all know who they were,” Reeves said. “But the vast majority of state agency directors came in here and asked for things that they felt like they needed, but it wasn’t the kind of unrealistic expectations of years past.

“Last year, just last year, total increases requested, that came before the committee, were in excess of $1.1 billion. This year, it was less than $750 million,” Reeves said. “Now, is $750 million a lot of money? Well, where I grew up in Florence, yeah, it’s a whole lot of money. But there a huge difference between 1.1 billion and 750 million.”

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