By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – As legislative leaders begin the final steps of putting together a budget proposal to present to both chambers of the Legislature for final passage, they will have an additional $97.6 million to spend.
On Thursday, the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee met to increase the estimate of the amount of taxes the state will collect for the upcoming fiscal year from $4.98 billion to $5.08 billion, or an increase of 1.6 percent.
The estimate represents the amount of money available for the 2013 Legislature to appropriate for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The state’s financial experts – known as the revenue estimating committee – also had recommended that the estimate be raised for the current fiscal year by $60 million.
That money – had the legislators opted to use it – also could have gone to address the many budget needs facing the Legislature during the 2013 session.
But the seven Senate members of the Budget Committee, led by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, blocked the effort to increase the revenue estimate for the current year.
Reeves said he was concerned about raising the revenue estimate for the current fiscal year because of the still “fragile economy.”
Traditionally, legislative leaders who serve on the Budget Committee accept the recommendations from the revenue estimating committee.
“I think they are very good at what they do,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who along with the other six members of the Legislative Budget Committee from the House voted to raise the estimate for the current year.
Reeves, during his two terms as state treasurer, was a member of the group that recommends a revenue estimate to legislative leaders. He said national economists have expressed concerns about the economy for the second quarter of the current year.
“I don’t understand why (Senate members on the Budget Committee) did not go with the revenue recommendation,” said Rep. Johnny Stringer of Montrose who when the Democrats controlled the House during the previous term served as Appropriations chair. “That would have taken care of our deficits with money left over for the next year.”
But the additional $60 million still would have left the Legislature facing shortfalls of hundreds of millions of dollars as they work to pass a budget during the final weeks of the session, which is scheduled to end April 7.
The budget bills passed by both the House and Senate leave education more than $290 million short of full funding under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula.
Other agencies, such as mental health, corrections and higher education, also are facing shortfalls.
Reeves said he hopes to use the additional money to fund, at least in part, Senate priorities such as funds for pre-kindergarten, for school safety officers and to enhance efforts to ensure children in the third grade are reading on grade level.
“We still are very conservative in our budgeting,” Gunn said. “We are trying to reduce the dependency on one-time money and certainly have many challenges ahead.”