After short break, work begins on state budget

JACKSON – If it seems like only yesterday that legislators were in the state’s capital city working on the budget, it’s because it was – figuratively – only yesterday.
The 2009 Legislature, which was scheduled to complete its budget work by late March, did not finally do so until early July, after the new 2010 budget year already had begun.
Legislative leaders are not getting much of a break from their budget work.
The 14-member Legislative Budget Committee, which includes Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Speaker Billy McCoy, will begin work Monday on the fiscal year 2011 budget year, which begins July 1.
The Budget Committee members will hear funding requests from key state agencies Monday through Thursday.
The hearings will start the process that leads to both the Budget Committee and Gov. Haley Barbour developing budget proposals for the full Legislature to consider when it convenes in January.
The combination of declining state tax collections caused by the national economic troubles and questions about the use of federal stimulus funds played a major role in the struggle to pass a budget during the 2009 session.
The question about the stimulus funds, which also will be available for the upcoming budget year, have been answered. But state tax collections remain sluggish.
Work on how much money to put into education, public health and public safety will begin Monday. But it’s unlike that much new spending will come out of the budget hearings.
Because of sluggish tax collections dating back a year and with no renewed growth in tax collections in site, many state agencies expect more cuts.
“I am optimistic concerning the budget and concerning the revenue,” said McCoy, D-Rienzi. “I want to be that way, but we have to be realistic. The budgeting process is going to be very strenuous.”
But McCoy advocated “accenting programs” that he believes can improve the economy. He cited tourism as an example.
“There are huge possibilities in tourism that could lead to employing more people and to producing more revenue for the state,” he said.
In past years, members of the Budget Committee would take the whole month of September to hear budget requests from state agency heads.
But now the committee members are taking less than a week to hear from key agencies, such as education, Medicaid and mental health.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, a member of the Budget Committee, said he does not believe it is a wise use of time to spend a whole month hearing budget requests from the agency heads.
“I think the budget hearings will be similar to what we have every year. Agency heads always ask for more money than they expect to get,” Nunnelee said.
He praised the College Board’s decision to scale back its request at the recommendation of Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds.
“I hope more agencies will do that,” Nunnelee said, “but I don’t really expect it.”
A key part of the pre-session budgeting work will occur when the Budget Committee meets with the governor in October to develop a revenue estimate.
The estimate, based on a recommendation from the state’s financial experts, will represent the amount of money the Legislature will budget during the 2010 session.
But it is not uncommon for the legislative leaders to change the estimate during the session before doing the final budget work. This past session legislative leaders lowered the estimate.
All agree the estimate will be conservative this year, and Barbour says he and legislative leaders should budget accordingly.
“Spending in Mississippi in the next few years is not likely to grow. It is more likely to decline,” the governor said recently. “We need to understand our revenue is still likely to decline.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Schedule for Mississippi budget hearings
The Associated Press
Public schedule for Mississippi budget hearings being held in the legislative conference room on the first floor of the Woolfolk state office building in Jackson:

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Monday:

1:45 p.m.: Personnel Board

2:20 p.m.: Supreme Court

2:50 p.m.: Attorney general

3:25 p.m.: Department of Finance and Administration

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Tuesday:

9:15 a.m.: Treasury Department

9:45 a.m.: Secretary of State

10:25 a.m.: Department of Mental Health

1:30 p.m.: Health Department

2:15 p.m.: Department of Human Services

2:55 p.m.: Public Employees Retirement System

3:40 p.m.: Department of Corrections

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Wednesday:

10 a.m.: Department of Education

11 a.m.: Department of Agriculture and Commerce

11:20 a.m.: Public Service Commission

1:30 p.m.: Community and Junior Colleges

2:30 p.m.: Department of Public Safety

3:10 p.m.: Division of Medicaid

4:15 p.m.: Gaming Commission

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Thursday:

9:15 a.m.: Institutions of Higher Learning

11:05 a.m.: Mississippi Development Authority

1:30 p.m.: Insurance Department

1:50 p.m.: Department of Revenue

2:40 p.m.: Revenue discussion by state economist Phil Pepper, Tax Commissioner Ed Morgan and others

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal