By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Most state agencies, including education, will absorb cuts in Gov. Phil Byrant’s first budget recommendation, which he released Tuesday.
“This is the most challenging budget I have ever seen,” said Bryant, who took office on Jan. 10 after previously serving in the House, as state auditor and then as lieutenant governor.
Bryant proposed his budget Tuesday in a Senate committee room that was packed with legislators, the media and lobbyists. Overall, he recommended spending $5.49 billion on the general fund – about $26 million less than was spent by the 2011 Legislature.
There is $168 million less in one-time money in the Bryant budget proposal. He spends $274.2 million in reserve funds, but about $107 million should be left in reserves.
“If you can find a better way, I am open to the recommendations,” Bryant said to legislators at his presentation, adding more money might be available if state revenue collections continue to improve.
A few agencies, such as Corrections and Highway Patrol, were not cut by the proposal, but most departments will absorb 5.5 percent cuts.
The Republican governor is asking districts to dip into their reserves to spend $73 million to count toward level funding.
As of June 30, Bryant said the districts had $615 million in reserves. But Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, the former House Education Committee chair, said those reserve funds are at a high-water mark in June and are depleted during the year to pay for school operating expenses at a time when the districts are not collecting additional tax revenue.
Bryant is asking for an additional $23 million be put into education to pay for programs that attract teachers to impoverished areas of the state, to provide a fund for districts that do not have reserves to offset the $73 million in cuts and to provide additional funds to high-growth districts.
Overall, universities and community colleges are being cut 6 percent.
Bryant is proposing to change the way health care providers are reimbursed for treating Medicaid recipients. Under his proposal, for instance, hospitals would receive a set fee for a service and it would not vary from one hospital to the next.
Plus, he also is proposing to remove state employees from under the state Personnel Board, which provides them civil service protection. Despite the removal of civil service protections, Bryant said, “This is not going to be a spoils system in the state of Mississippi.”
Former Gov. Haley Barbour tried to remove the civil service protection during his tenure, but it was blocked by a Democratic-controlled House. Republicans now control both chambers.
During Barbour’s tenure, the Democratic-controlled House proposed selling one of the two state airplanes, but that proposal was blocked by the Bryant-led Senate. On Tuesday, as part of his budget recommendation, Bryant proposed selling the state jet.