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Lawmakers to hold public hearings on state budget

JACKSON — Top lawmakers will meet later this month to start planning Mississippi’s budget — a process they will hand off to new legislators who take office in January.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee announced yesterday that it would hold public hearings Sept. 19-22 at the Woolfolk Building in downtown Jackson.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the Republican nominee for governor and current chairman of the 14-member committee. He said he wanted to cancel the budget hearings this fall because several committee members — including him — would not return next year.

Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi, who is not seeking re-election, said the fall budget hearings are an obligation and they give the public a chance to hear how tax dollars might be spent on everything from public health to prisons to education.

“We have a responsibility to fulfill our duty until the last hour we’re there,” McCoy told The Associated Press yesterday.

The fall hearings produce a set of recommendations that can either be followed or ignored by the new legislators.

All 122 House members and 52 senators will get to vote on details of a budget next spring, if they remain on schedule during their four-month session from January through early May. A new governor will get to sign or veto the spending plan. The state’s 2013 fiscal year begins July 1.

Bryant faces Democrat Johnny DuPree, independent Will Oatis and possibly a Reform Party candidate in the Nov. 8 election. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour could not seek a third term this year.

“I have made it no secret that I believe we need to adopt a more efficient budgeting system than what is currently used,” Bryant said in a news release yesterday. “I will continue to push for a performance-based budgeting system in this next legislative session and put an end to this age-old process.”

In 2010 and this year, Bryant allies in the Senate introduced bills that would have changed the budget process. The bills, which did not pass, would have required more legislative scrutiny of agencies’ performance. Critics said there is nothing in the current process that blocks such scrutiny.

At least four of the 14 Joint Budget Committee members won’t be in the Legislature next term. Besides Bryant and McCoy, they are Senate President Pro Tempore Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor; and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, who was defeated in a re-election primary last month.

Even the returning lawmakers who are currently on the committee have no guarantee of serving on the panel next term. The new lieutenant governor and House speaker will choose members in January — a half-dozen from each chamber.


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