Miss. lawmakers set final budget details for FY14

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi schools, universities, mental health programs and prisons will receive slightly more money in the coming year, under a $5.5 billion budget that leading lawmakers finished writing Saturday.

State employees won’t be receiving across-the-board pay raises during fiscal 2014, which begins July 1. But workers won’t have to pay any extra money toward their own pensions because the state is pumping more money into the Public Employees Retirement System.

There are more than 100 budget bills, and each must be approved by a majority of the House and Senate. Both chambers return to the Capitol on Sunday, and they’re expected to meet a Monday deadline to send the budget to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.

The Appropriations Committee chairmen — Republican Herb Frierson of Poplarville from the House and Republican Eugene “Buck” Clarke of Hollandale from the Senate — worked quietly Saturday at a big, round table in a section of House offices that are off-limits for most members of the public. They scratched through some numbers and added others as people from a few agencies made last-minute requests to shuffle money from one budget category to another.

The chairmen said their job was made slightly easier by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s recent decision to add $97 million to the total amount of money the state is expected to collect during fiscal 2014. Experts recommended the increase, based on an uptick in the state economy.

Frierson said the $97 million disappeared quickly.

“It just went ‘poof,'” Frierson said with a laugh. “It was like you piled it up on that table and turned a big fan on. It went all through government.”

Clarke said many agencies are losing vacant positions, which saves money in the budget. Even if a job is not filled for months, budget writers have to set aside money so the person who is eventually hired can be paid.

Lawmakers are putting more money into elementary and secondary education than in the current year, but they’re still not fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. About $27 million of the increase for K-12 is to cover teachers’ portion of the retirement fund. And $23 million is divided among a limited pre-kindergarten program, an early elementary program designed to ensure children are reading proficiently by the end of third grade and grants to help schools hire armed officers.

Nancy Loome of the Parents Campaign, a group that lobbies for public schools’ funding, said money for MAEP will be about $292 million short of the formula, just as it was during fiscal 2013.

The university system is receiving about $14 million more than it’s getting this year. Community colleges are getting about $8 million more for workforce training.

The Department of Corrections had requested an additional $29 million to get through fiscal 2013, which ends June 30. Budget writers said the agency later trimmed its request to $23 million, and that gap was filled during final budget negotiations. Another $23 million also was put into the prison system for fiscal 2014.

Lawmakers directed an additional $10 million into community-based mental health services as part of an effort to head off a possible lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, Clarke said. Plans call for $10 million in annual growth in mental health services over each of the next three years, or $40 million total over four years.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus

Click video to hear audio