Legislative leaders tout fiscally conservative budget

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Legislative leaders said their budget proposal, released Tuesday, eliminates the use of one-time money to fund recurring expenses while funding key priorities, such as education.

REEVES

REEVES

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves contended the budget released Tuesday by the Legislative Budget Committee “is the most fiscally responsible budget this committee has passed in the past 15 years.”

But the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of the basics for operating local school districts, was funded at the same level as the previous year in the Budget Committee’s recommendation, as it was in the governor’s proposal released last month.

Level funding is an estimated $285 million short of full funding, according to the MAEP formula set by law. If the 2014 Legislature passed the recommendation of the 14 House and Senate leaders who compose the Budget Committee, it would mean that since 2008 MAEP would have been underfunded by about $1.5 billion.

Reeves, who chairs the Budget Committee this year, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, both stressed that the proposal released Tuesday is a starting point.

GUNN

GUNN

The full Legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant face a deadline in April to complete the task of funding all aspects of state government – from transportation, to health care, to public safety, plus education.

But Reeves said the Budget Committee proposal, if adopted as is, would be sufficient to run state government at adequate levels.

The proposal totals $5.86 billion in state-support funding – a $36.3 million increase from the budget passed for the current fiscal year by the 2013 Legislature.

The proposal totals $19.4 billion when federal funds and special funds are factored in. Special funds include such spending as special taxes or fees to run specific agencies, such as barbers paying a fee to fund the agency that regulates them.

Reeves and Gunn touted the fact that the proposal stops the practice of spending non-recurring funds on recurring expenses and maintains $584 million in reserves.

Community colleges would receive an increase of $13.8 million while the eight public universities would garner an additional $22.9 million. Education on the kindergarten through 12th-grade level receives an additional $20 million directed at specific areas, such as $5.5 million for a literacy program.

Reeves said the increases in public education are targeted at areas where the committee believes the most difference can be made. Level funding is proposed for pre-kindergarten pilot programs even though legislation passed in the 2013 session calls for a yearly increase for the early childhood learning effort.

The proposal eliminates 2,296 state employee positions that have been vacant for more than 120 days. Plus, like the budget proposal released last month by the governor, the Budget Committee’s recommendation sets aside funds for repair and renovation to curtail the amount of borrowing for routine projects.

The Republican leaders, who maintain majority control in both legislative chambers, spend significantly less on public safety in their proposal than Bryant does in his executive budget proposal.

The Republican governor provides large funding boosts for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Reeves said he and other members of the committee were concerned that money appropriated to Public Safety “does not seem to be getting to the troopers on the road.”

Public Safety officials have said in the past the funds have been appropriated as directed by the Legislature.

Gunn said, “This is a starting point. Some of the numbers will be adjusted. Hopefully, we will have an increase in revenue. That would be a good problem to have.”

Rep. Preston Sullivan of Okolona, one of three Democrats on the committee, also expressed hope that funds for many programs could be increased in the final budget.

“I think it is a very conservative budget proposal, but the good thing is that revenue has been growing by 5 percent while we have been budgeting at a 2 percent level,” Sullivan said. “That leaves lots of money.”

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com