BOBBY HARRISON: Budget process changes appear to gain momentum

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Last week, key legislative leaders, including Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and House Speaker Billy McCoy, heard budget requests from key agency heads.
The Legislative Budget Committee did in four days last week what it used to take more than a month to do. But after Hurricane Katrina slammed much of Mississippi in August 2005, the state was literally in chaos and the Budget Committee hearings were shortened as the focus was placed on disaster recovery.
Since then, the Budget Committee’s hearing scheduled has been abbreviated.
This year Bryant, who is busy running for governor as the Republican nominee, did not want to have the hearings at all. He reasoned that it did not make sense for the Budget Committee to meet and develop a budget that tied the hands of the newly elected Legislature since many members of the Budget Committee would not be back in their current positions anyway – either retiring or losing election bids in the August party primaries.
Others still face November general election opposition.
But in making his proposal, Bryant and his staff overlooked one key element – state law mandates the Budget Committee to craft a budget proposal. State law does not say the Budget Committee can abandon its duties if they are busy running for office or will not be back for the next term.
Bryant said in making his proposal he was trying to get at a larger issue – the Budget Committee in its current incarnation is broken, and the state budgeting process needs to be revamped.
Bryant has talked about his ideas for changing the system – and no doubt will continue to do so on the campaign trail. At the center of his budgeting revamp is performance-based budgeting where state agencies must document whether they met stated goals with their legislative appropriation.
The state already is supposed to have performance-based budgeting, but Bryant said the current system is not taken seriously by legislators or by state agency heads.
At any rate, the current budget system was designed during a different era when partisan politics was virtually non-existent in Mississippi. Instead, the Mississippi Legislature operated on pure power politics.
The Budget Committee was designed to give the speaker and lieutenant governor and their hand-picked committee members enormous influence in the appropriations process. The proposal passed by the Budget Committee was used by the Legislature as the guideline in developing a budget.
Often, each chamber would simply rubber-stamp the Budget Committee recommendation, and then in negotiations with the other chamber adopt a compromise. And who is in on those negotiations? A few key members of the Budget Committee appointed by the speaker and lieutenant governor.
Then, given legislative deadlines, the full House and Senate are asked to vote on that compromise on a $5 billion general fund budget in a matter of literally hours.
In fairness, the process has been changed in recent years. In the House, in particular, Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, have passed a budget representing that chamber.
In the committee process and on the floor, there have been debates and votes that have resulted in a budget position for the House in the negotiations process. The Senate has done much the same in recent years, though to a lesser extent.
In lieu of the current Budget Committee process, it might work if the House and Senate Appropriations committees – or key members of the committees – held separate hearings with agency heads and each crafted their own proposals.
To complete the process, some of those meetings might need to be held before the session started.
Some joint legislative entity – perhaps the Budget Committee – would still need to meet with the governor to agree on a revenue estimate, which would represent the amount of money available to appropriate. Without an agreement on a set amount of money, it is impossible to ever reach agreement on a budget.
That inability to agree would make the state too much like Washington.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.