Analysis: Miss. budgeteers begin working on FY12

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

Mississippi’s annual budget hearings used to be monthlong affairs, with directors of even the smallest agencies going before lawmakers each September to brag about their employees’ accomplishments and plead for future funding.

Mercifully, the hearings are now much shorter and more efficient.

Members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee will meet four days only — Sept. 20-23 — to start planning how the state will spend taxpayers’ money during fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, 2011.

The meetings are open to the public, and are held in a first-floor conference room in the Woolfolk state office building near the Capitol in downtown Jackson.

Several major agencies and programs will make in-person presentations. Among them are the universities and K-12 schools, the Board of Health, the Division of Medicaid, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Human Services.

One of the largest agencies, the Department of Transportation, declined an invitation to appear before lawmakers.

Smaller programs such as the State Board of Funeral Service and the State Board of Cosmetology are submitting written requests for funding. At least one agency’s absence at the hearings will be noteworthy: The Arts Commission always had nifty, colorful presentations, as could be expected from an agency whose raison d’etre is promoting creativity.

Budget hearings were thrown off kilter in 2001, after the events of 9/11. A special legislative session following Hurricane Katrina erased the budget hearings in 2005. From 2006 through 2008, the hearings covered two weeks. Starting last year, the schedule was condensed to four days.

Crafting a Mississippi budget is a complex process. Before the September hearings begin, staff members for the Legislative Budget Office collect and crunch numbers from agencies.

The professionals at LBO — if you really want to be an insider, just call it “elbow” — are the unsung heroes of state fiscal planning. They don’t run for office, and they never stand in front of TV cameras to speechify about the need for increased or decreased spending. They’re the straightforward, just-the-facts-ma’am analysts who guide the elected officials with information about how the agencies’ budget requests compare to the funding from previous years.

Thirteen men and one woman currently serve on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. One woman and six men come from the House, including Speaker Billy McCoy. Six men come from the Senate, and the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, is that chamber’s seventh Joint Budget Committee member.

All 122 House members and 52 senators will get to vote on budget bills sometime early next year. Fingers crossed, they’ll finish that task during the regular legislative session that’s scheduled to run from early January through early April.

Lawmakers have struggled to finish a budget the past two years. After a series of stop-and-start negotiations, they worked until almost midnight on June 30, 2009, passing most of the budget bills in the final hours before fiscal 2010 began.

Don’t expect them to be slowpokes in the coming year. Most legislators are expected to either run for re-election or seek a higher office in 2011, and they won’t want to be seen as procrastinators who couldn’t manage one of their most basic jobs.