BOBBY HARRISON: Rules change will hinder the rank-and-file

By Bobby Harrison

JACKSON – Sometimes before late March, the Mississippi House will be required to pass the education budget. That action by the House will be an early step in the labyrinth that is the legislative budgeting process.
But it is an important step because it is the point in the process where an individual member who is not on the Appropriations Committee or a key member of the leadership team has the opportunity to influence the process by offering amendments to change the amount of funding in each individual entity – such as for kindergarten through 12th grade education or for community colleges.
Assume for sake of argument, the bill that comes out of the House Appropriations Committee for the full chamber to consider is the same as Gov. Phil Bryant’s budget proposal that leaves education about $75 million short of level funding and more than $320 million less than full funding.
There is a possibility that there would be other sources of revenue an individual member could identify in an amendment to increase funding for education. For instance, there is a distinct possibility that the revenue estimate will be increased – probably in April because tax collections continue to come in above expectations – meaning more money will be available to fund education.
But there would be no mechanism for an individual member of the House to pass legislation to say that money from an increased revenue estimate should go to education under a rule change passed by the House and pending in the state Senate.
The proposed rules change would require the individual member to take funds from another agency to provide additional funds for education. It is important to note here that each agency has its own appropriation bill. There are more than 100 appropriations bills that fund what would be the overall state budget.
By the end of March, the House is supposed to have passed half of those bills and the Senate the other half. Then, each chamber will take up the bills already passed by the other house.
Under the proposed rule change, a member could take funds from an appropriations bill in the other chamber. But once the two chambers swap bills, the Senate, for instance, could not take funds from a budget bill it already has voted on and sent to the House to increase funding for education.
Nor could a member look at the potentially paltry funding amount for education, make a determination that he believes more should be taken from the state’s reserves to fund local school systems and offer an amendment to try to get a majority of the chamber to agree with him. A member could not use any more money to increase funds for education than was spent by the Appropriations Committee.
Nor could a member offer an amendment to take the funds from an increase in the revenue estimate and direct those funds to education. The increase in the revenue estimate will most likely be made after the two chambers pass their appropriations bills.
That does not mean the increased revenue to fund the budget will not be used during the 2012 session. It just means that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and three or four key members, such as the two Appropriations chairs, will have unprecedented influence in making that decision. Individual members will have no influence.
The leadership said the rules change will ensure a balanced budget. State law already ensures a balanced budget. The leadership talks in general terms of members offering amendments to increase funding in politically popular areas with no money to pay for the proposed increases. But they cite few examples of that actually occurring.
Members have had little to do thus far in a session that has gotten off to a historically slow start. Each chamber has passed only two bills even though the session is in its seventh week.
With the change in the appropriations process, the members might have even less to do.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.