MDOC not seeking significant budget increase

JACKSON — Mississippi’s prisons chief says the state’s inmate population has quit increasing, and he’s not seeking a boost in state general funding next fiscal year.

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Monday that the state currently has about 20,000 inmates in custody.

“We’ve leveled off. We’re taking in as many as coming off,” said Epps, who made his presentation during the first day of budget hearings.

Epps requested about $5,000 less in general funding for the budget year that begins next July 1. He only asked lawmakers to increase his authority to spend an additional $3 million that will be generated from fees associated with supervising inmates once they’re released from prison.

Epps’ budget request was $335.2 million.

Several agencies made the annual pitch to the committee, including the state Personnel Board, the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Insurance.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said most of the agencies made modest budget requests. Lawmakers said that wasn’t surprising, given the state’s sluggish economy in recent years.

Last fiscal year, Gov. Haley Barbour had to cut to slash more than $400 million from the state’s budget because revenue collections failed to meet projections.

“I think you’ll see they realize we’re not going to fund them at the level they might need,” Bryant said.

Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, said the presentations were “quite subdued. They understand the tight budget situation.”

The hearings are the first step in drafting a spending plan for the next budget year. Lawmakers will consider the committee’s recommendations during the 2011 legislative session that begins in January.

In the past, Epps has often appeared before the committee seeking additional funding, while reminding legislators that the state’s growing prison population had been fueling the costs.

Epps told the committee the population had been level since July. He also said Parchman’s Unit 32 would be closed by mid-October and inmates, including those on Death Row, would be housed in other facilities.

Epps said the unit was too costly to operate. However, it will be maintained in case there’s ever any need for the space.

He also said there were no plans to lay off MDOC employees.

“I’m hoping to get them out through attrition,” he said.

The committee was also told the state’s work force remained constant in the just-ended fiscal year. Lynn Fitch, executive director of the state Personnel Board, said that was “good news.” She said there are 92,837 total state employees.

Fitch said the average salary is $34,022, but about 62 percent of state employees earn less than the average. She said only 2 percent earn more than $80,000.

Fitch said Mississippi state employees still earn less than their counterparts in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee.

Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press