BOBBY HARRISON: Revenues rise, but will rules impede using new funds?

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Mississippi revenue collections were $19.7 million or 8.1 percent above expectations for the month of February and $124.4 million or 4.7 percent above the estimate for the budget year.
Those numbers are good news for legislators and others worried about funding state government during the ongoing 2012 legislative session. It is especially good news for kindergarten through 12th grade education that is cut more than $70 million in Gov. Phil Bryant’s budget proposal.
But there is a possibility that the rules put in place this year by the new Republican leadership in the House and Senate, and approved by a majority of the members, will prevent the regular rank-and-file legislator from having any influence on the spending of a substantial portion of that likely revenue growth.
Earlier this year the Legislature, at the behest of the new leadership, changed the rules to say a member wanting to amend a budget bill on the floor had to take the money from another appropriations bill. It is important to note here that there are more than 100 appropriations bills. Each state entity has its own funding bill.
On the surface, the rules change seemed reasonable.
But what is not taken into account is that there are literally millions of dollars in other sources of state money – in addition to traditional tax revenue – that could be used to fund the budget. If the Appropriations committees did not use those sources of money in funding those more than 100 budget bills, then the rank-and-file member would not have the right to offer an amendment to the full chamber to see if a majority of the membership wanted to tap some of those funds.
It is as if the leadership does not trust the members to be fiscally responsible and the majority of the members agree with the leadership’s assessment.
The rules change is especially important when it comes to revenue growth, such as what is currently occurring in the state. Before the revenue growth will be available to budget this year, the Legislative Budget Committee, chaired by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and consisting of the speaker and 12 other members, must meet and increase the revenue estimate.
March 28 is the deadline for each chamber to pass essentially half of the budget bills. Then the other chamber takes up the other half.
If the Budget Committee meets before March 28, raises the revenue estimate and the Appropriations Committee uses the new revenue in passing the budget bills, then the growth or new funds will be available for the rank-and-file members to use in offering amendments to fund education or any other entity. But if the Budget Committee does not meet before March 28 to raise the revenue estimate, then it will be up to a handful of members – essentially the two Appropriations chairs – to decide in the final days of the session if the money, and how much, can be used to fund education and other entities in danger of being cut this year.
This past November, Republicans gained control of the House and Senate for the first time since the 1800s. Those members wasted little time putting faith in their leadership and ceding a significant amount of their own power to have influence in taking care of local school districts.
The rules change gives the speaker and the lieutenant governor, and their key lieutenants, the most power they have had since the 1980s.
The coming weeks of the 2012 session will determine whether the trust a majority of members placed in their leadership works out for those local school districts and for other vital state services.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.