By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – House and Senate leaders express cautious optimism as they prepare to begin a week-long process of hearing from key state agency heads.
The optimism is that state revenue estimates will continue to improve, providing additional funds to fill budget gaps left over from the recession that hit in 2008 resulting in an unprecedented drop in revenue during a two-year period.
“I am guardedly optimistic that the forecasters will have a good forecast for the next fiscal year,” said House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, a member of the Legislative Budget Committee that begins hearings Monday. “I am cautiously optimistic…that the recovery will continue so we can fill some of the budget holes that have developed.”
The hearings, which run through Thursday, will provide information to the 14-member committee as it develops a budget recommendation as a starting point for the full Legislature in the 2014 session. The budget will be for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will chair the committee for the upcoming year. The lieutenant governor and House speaker alternate yearly chairing the panel.
Reeves, who also expressed optimism for the upcoming process, said he thinks the committee will try to make education from the kindergarten through university level a priority while other agencies generally will be level-funded or even see a reduction in funding.
“I would like to see agencies come in and instead of saying what their needs are, offer recommendations to save money,” Reeves said.
House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, doubts that will happen, estimating that agencies will request about $1 billion more in state funding than was appropriated for the current budget during the 2013 session.
The state-supported budget for the current fiscal year is $5.75 billion.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said he hopes members of the Budget Committee place an emphasis on funding education. Funding for K-12 education has been underfunded nearly $1.3 billion since the 2007-08 school year, based on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula.
Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and Governor’s Mansion. House Democrats last week issued a statement urging additional funding for education.
“We all agree that an adequate education is essential for every Mississippian and that an educated workforce is the key to improved economic opportunities for all Mississippians,” said Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, chair of the House Democratic caucus. “It’s time for our Republican colleagues to step up and do what is necessary and what is right. We call on our Republican colleagues to join us in pushing for adequate funding for our public schools.”
Reeves said he also wants to talk to some agencies during the hearings because of increases in their travel budget at a time that belt-tightening was needed because of the slow recovery from the recession.
While revenue has rebounded the past two years, growing by more than 5 percent annually, Frierson said the Committee, ultimately the entire Legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant still face some difficult budget decisions.
“We have a lot of needs out there – a lot of problems,” he said.
But they remain cautiously optimistic that the worst days are behind the state.