BOBBY HARRISON: Legislative Budget Committee wrestles with cold, hard facts

JACKSON – For the average citizen, the state budgeting process is kind of like learning a foreign language – perhaps a little-known language that no one speaks any longer.
For instance, the Legislative Budget Committee is currently meeting. What exactly is the function of this group, which consists of Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, and 12 House and Senate budget leaders?
To understand the role of the Budget Committee one needs to understand that working on a state budget is almost a year-long process.
The Budget Committee currently is hearing from some agency heads and is taking written requests from others.
Next – sometime in October – the Budget Committee and the governor will hold a joint meeting and develop an estimate of the revenue the state will collect during the next fiscal year from tax collections and from other sources. The governor and Budget Committee normally accept the recommendation of the state’s financial experts.
Using that revenue estimate, both the Budget Committee and the governor are supposed to develop budget proposals in advance of the next legislative session.
The session will begin in January where work will begin on finalizing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
That work is supposed to be completed in March or April. But in recent years, because of deadlock involving the governor and the Legislature, it has been as late as June or even into July before the full budget was adopted and signed into law.
Then in about August, state agency heads are supposed to submit their budget requests to the staff of the Legislative Budget Committee and to the governor’s office to prepare to begin the never-ending process anew.
The Legislative Budget Committee is not as important to the process as it once was.
Used to, House and Senate leaders at the end of the session basically would meet and agree on a budget, using the Legislative Budget Committee’s recommendation, as a starting point. The full House and Senate then would be asked to vote on that budget developed by the leaders.
In other words, the full Legislature would give great deference to the work in the fall of the Legislative Budget Committee in developing a budget. But that is not necessarily the case any longer.
And from a representative democracy standpoint, that might be a good thing.
Nowadays, especially in the House, a budget is developed that becomes the House’s position. The budget is developed in various Appropriations subcommittees and voted on by the full Appropriations Committee and then the full House. All along the way, members have the ability to amend the budget if they can garner a majority vote.
The Senate also has moved in that direction.
Then late in the session when House and Senate leaders meet to try to hammer out an agreement, the House leaders try to maintain the position approved by their chamber and vice versa.
All this makes the work of the Legislative Budget Committee in the fall less important.
The Budget Committee’s work still can be important. After all, it is an opportunity for legislative leaders to hash out in a very public setting budget issues and other controversial matters with agency heads.
Discussing key state issues in a public setting is always a good thing.
And, of course, the meeting of the governor and the Legislative Budget Committee to develop a revenue estimate is crucial to developing a budget. After all, a budget cannot be developed without knowing the amount of money available to spend.
All of this is important, but confusing.
But the key items to remember are that the budgeting process is probably becoming more democratic with more legislators involved in the process and that currently – because of an unprecedented drop in tax collections – the state’s budget situation is dire.
And the most important thing to remember is that the state budget affects the quality of life of every citizen – from the children in the classroom, to the roads we drive on to the number of state troopers on the highways.
That is why it is important to pay some attention to this confusing process.
Contact Bobby Harrison, the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief at bobby.harrison@djournal.com, or call (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal