Legislature to begin with fiscal options

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Coming off two consecutive years of state revenue growth of more than 5 percent means the 2014 Legislature will have fiscal options for a change.

The revenue growth by no means is enough to take care of all the needs, but by Mississippi standards the state is relatively flush with cash.

Basically, the only times in recent memory where the state has had better revenue collections occurred in the three years after Hurricane Katrina, thanks in large part, experts say, to the rebuilding spurred by federal funds and insurance claims payments. And before then, much of the 1990s saw strong growth, thanks in large part to the inception of casino gambling.

So legislators, who convene the 2014 session Tuesday, will have more fiscal options than they normally do. In both fiscal years 2012 and 2013, revenue growth was more than 5 percent. And for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, and for which the Legislature budgeted during the 2013 session, growth has been strong thus far.

TURNER

TURNER

“It should be a very calm session,” predicted Rep. Jerry Tuner, R-Baldwyn. “I don’t see a lot to be too controversial. We always have the budget that will be somewhat contentious.

“People will have different ideas about where the money should go. We will always have those discussions.”

Indeed, how to divvy up the money, most likely, will be the overriding issue of the session. Former longtime House Speaker Tim Ford, then a Baldwyn Democrat, used to say it was more difficult to budget when the state had extra funds than when times were tight.

During flush times, Ford reasoned, more people fight to garner a share of the funds.

This session, the Republican legislative leadership and Gov. Phil Bryant have touted their plans to build the state’s cash reserves.

Democrats will advocate for spending some of those reserves, which could be as much as $580 million under a budget proposal made by the legislative leadership.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said some of those funds should be spent on key programs.

“We don’t want to deplete the rainy day fund,” he said. “But I think this is the first time in several years we can deal with some of the quality-of-life issues that we have faced for so many years.”

Of course, Democrats might not be the only ones looking to dip into reserves. House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who maintains that the top priority of the Legislature should be producing a fiscally responsible budget, has said he would like to explore the possibility of giving teachers a pay raise during the 2014 session.

A raise of 1 percent, according to the state Department of Education, would cost about $16 million. An increase of $1,000 would cost about $30 million.

Bryant has proposed an increase of 4.6 percent, or an additional $282.5 million, in spending spread out over several areas, ranging from health care to public safety to higher education.

Bryant is pushing an increase of 26.7 percent, or $26.5 million, for the Department of Public Safety and the military. Those funds would be used to train and fund 60 new state troopers, to develop strike teams across the state to deal with high crime areas, for 73 news cars, for 512 new bulletproof vests, for 16 new prosecutors and to adequately staff the state Crime Lab.

A point of contention between the Republican legislative leadership and the Republican governor has been the management of the budget for the Department of Public Safety. Both Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have questioned the budget priorities of the leadership Bryant has put in place at Public Safety.

Gunn said recently he supports a new trooper school to replace the retiring troopers, but said money needed for the school – $7 million – might be found without increasing funding for the agency.

Other issues that are expected to be debated during the 2014 session include:

• Changing the criminal justice system in a manner to bring more consistency in sentences while reducing the sentences and providing more supervision for some nonviolent offenders. There seems to be broad support for trying to slow the rapid increase in the budget for the Department of Corrections.

• Increasing funding for education. Education supporters will be advocating an effort to provide full funding for the local school districts to take some of the pressure off local property taxes.

• Expanding Medicaid to provide health care to the working poor. The Republican leadership opposes expanding Medicaid as is allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act with the bulk of the costs paid by the federal government.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com