New budget still short of '08 peak

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Most state agencies will receive lower funding during the new budget year, which began last week, than they did five years ago.
While state revenue collections have improved over the past year, Mississippi is still not taking in as much revenue as it did in 2008 – just before the national recession hit.
The Legislature in 2007 passed a fiscal year 2008 budget for general fund agencies totaling $5.52 million. The 2012 Legislature passed a budget for fiscal year 2013 totaling $5.54 billion.
While the total budget was a little more for fiscal year 2013, this past session the Legislature used $466 billion in one-time money to fund recurring expenses – more than $100 million above what was used in the 2007 session.
For most state agencies, the money they received in the 2007 session is the high-water mark. Medicaid is an exception. The federal-state health care program received $821.7 million for this year – compared to $513.6 million in 2008.
A key difference between Medicaid and other agencies, state leaders have said, is that the bulk of the Medicaid budget is consumed by paying for health care services for its more than 600,000 recipients, and state offices are limited in their ability to control costs.
Many other state agencies are receiving less funding than they did in fiscal year 2008. But in many instances, funding is a little better for the current year than it was from 2009 to 2011 in the midst of the recession.
“I’m sure they’re receiving less money,” said Rep. Jerry Turner, chairman of the House’s Transparency, Efficiency and Accountability Committee. “Whether the cuts have been detrimental, I don’t know. But there have been some cuts.”
An example of the cuts can be seen at the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks – not a big agency but one that many people come into contact with because of Mississippi’s extensive network of state parks, such as Tombigbee in Lee County, Trace in Pontotoc County and Tishomingo and Coleman in Tishomingo County.
In 2008, the agency received a state appropriation of $9.7 million. This fiscal year, which is just beginning, the agency is slated to receive $7.6 million – up from $6.8 million the past fiscal year and $6.6 million the previous one.
The agency had 828 full-time positions in 2008 compared to 659 for the current fiscal year.
The state Department of Mental Health has been especially hard hit. In fiscal year 2008 the agency received a state appropriation of $282.7 million compared to $216.8 million in 2011 and $249.3 million in 2012. Funding dropped to $224.4 million for the current 2013 fiscal year, but that decrease is a bit misleading because state funds to draw down federal matching funds are no longer channeled through that agency.
According to Wendy Bailey, spokeswoman for the Mental Health agency, 500 adult psychiatric beds have been closed at Mississippi State Hospital and East Mississippi State Hospital. Some people were moved to “more cost-effective” community-based group homes. Early intervention programs for children with disabilities and at-risk children were closed.
Bailey added 15,000 people were impacted “by reduction or loss of services such as medication purchases, group homes, case management, halfway houses, crisis intervention, physician services, child development programs and work activity programs due to cuts in grant funding.”
The agency employs 823 people fewer than the 8,972 it employed in fiscal year 2008.
EDUCATION IMPACT
Much of the focus of the budget cuts has centered on education – from the kindergarten through 12th-grade level, to the community colleges and universities.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who has played a key role in the budgeting process in recent years, said the cuts have had a significant impact in all areas of state government, but the most noticeable impact might be in education.
“Local property taxes have gone up because of cuts in state funds to school districts,” he said. “Tuition has gone through the roof. That all is a result of budget cuts.”
In a meeting last year, state Superintendent Tom Burnham cited budget cuts, resulting in reduction by some estimates of about 800 teachers, as leading to larger class sizes and a leveling-off of student achievement on standardized testing.
Kell Smith, a spokesman for the state Community College Board, said budget cuts have forced the state’s two-year schools to turn to part-time instructors to deal with what has been a growing enrollment.
“If our community colleges continue to hire adjunct faculty in place of full-time faculty, accreditation could become an issue,” Smith said.
Smith said since 2008 the number of full-time faculty has increased by 66 to 7,972. During the same time frame, part-time faculty has increased by 738 to 2,924. The additional faculty members were needed to deal with a 23 percent increase in students.
Tuition was $1,722 per year in fiscal year 2008. For the last school year, it averaged $2,174 for the 15 community colleges.
During the past four years, which included an unprecedented downturn in state revenue collections, higher education funding was cut 15 percent. Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said, on top of the cuts, the universities had to pick up an additional 4 percent increase in the costs of the state pension plan for their employees.
A faculty member at a Mississippi university now makes 15 percent or more than $8,000 less per year than his or her counterpart in other Southern states.
“If we are going to remain competitive, we absolutely must focus on bringing faculty salaries up,” Bounds said recently.
NOT ALL CUT
Not all agencies have had a cut in funding.
Funding for the Department of Human Services has increased, but Executive Director Richard Berry said just about all of the increase has gone to try to reach the terms of the settlement of what is known as the Olivia Y lawsuit, where the state was sued for allegations its Family and Children Services Division was not providing adequate services to foster children.
Despite efforts by the state to reach terms of the agreement, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the agency is still plagued with “chronic understaffing” hampering efforts to ensure children’s safety.
Berry said the agency also has been hit by a dramatic increase in the number of people in the Food Stamp program administered by his agency.
Michael Lucius, the deputy state health officer and chief administrative officer, said the Department of Health has received sufficient funding to fulfill its core functions, but enhanced efforts need to be made to deal with pressing public health issues, such as obesity, diabetes and various other ailments.
Brown pointed out that during the economic downturn, the state took advantage of almost $1 billion in federal stimulus funds and other sources of one-time money to offset cuts. Without those, he said the impact of the economic downturn would have been much worse.
“If we didn’t have the stimulus money, I don’t know what we would have done,” he said.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com