JACKSON, Mississippi – Who is the big spender here?
The tag goes to Gov. Phil Bryant based on his $6.1 billion 2014 spending plan.
In fairness to Bryant, Mississippi’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee was well aware of an opportunity to undercut the governor and did just that when the Tate Reeves-led panel presented a $5.86 billion budget Tuesday morning. The lower spending includes letting over 2,000 state jobs go unfilled.
Lt. Gov. Reeves, chairman of the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said the fiscal 2015 budget proposal maintains current agency spending while cutting more than 2,000 vacant positions.
The joint committee’s spending plan reflects a $36.3 million increase over last year.
Both Bryant and the joint committee propose more money for education and an end to the use of “one-time” money, which includes money from bond issues, for operational expenses.
“This budget continues that trend by stopping the practice of issuing debt for recurring repairs, and that is why our proposal allocates $20 million for bridge repair from cash, not bonds,” Reeves said in a press statement that accompanied approval of the joint committee’s budget.
The joint committee also recommended $548 million be reserved for increasing the balance of the Rainy Day Fund to an optimal level. The money could go for additional needs in the fiscal l2015 budget or be held for allocation during future budget years.
Reducing the use of one-time money for recurring expenses and putting more cash into reserves would help address concerns raised by the Fitch credit rating agency, which said Nov. 5 that it had downgraded Mississippi’s bond rating outlook from stable to negative, the Associated Press reported in November. The state’s bond rating remains AA+, only one step below the highest AAA level, but the agency warned the rating could be lowered unless officials take steps to shore up state government finances. A lower bond rating would make it more expensive for state government to borrow money.
On the education front, the joint committee proposes increasing funding for the Institutions of Higher Learning (2.6 percent), community colleges (3.3 percent) and K-12 General Education (12.9 percent).
One highly publicized provision of Bryant’s budget – an additional $4.4 million for the Division of Medicaid – received no mention in the press release accompanying the joint committee’s budget proposal. Bryant said the money, officially known as “disproportionate share” funding, needs to be included to offset cuts in federal money that hospitals in the state receive for treating the uninsured. The cut in federal disproportionate share” funding comes as a consequence of Mississippi’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Mississippi is projected to collect almost $5.4 billion in taxes and fees during FY15. The governor’s budget is built on that estimate, which would be supplemented by money from recurring sources — $373 million from an education enhancement fund and $109.8 million from the annual payment from a tobacco lawsuit settlement that dates back to the late 1990s. The governor also counts on $35 million in additional tax collections because the Department of Revenue is working with a new computer system that makes the collection process more efficient, the Associated Press reported..
Lawmakers typically adopt few suggestions from any governor’s budget, regardless who is in that office and which party controls the House or Senate, according to the Associated Press. Both chambers are Republican-controlled this term, but that doesn’t guarantee that Bryant will have a large influence over the final spending plan, the AP said.
All 122 House members and 52 senators will vote on a final budget by late March or early April, if they stay on schedule.