State budget gets $247.6M more

GUNN

GUNN

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The Mississippi Legislature will have an additional $247.6 million to appropriate as it works in coming days to finalize a budget.

The new money is the result of the decision of the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee on Tuesday to raise the estimate of the amount of tax revenue the state is expected to collect for the rest of the current fiscal year and for the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The Budget Committee, which includes Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Speaker Philip Gunn and 12 other legislative leaders, raised the estimate based on the recommendations of the state’s financial experts.

Bob Neal, senior economist for the state, told the legislative leaders the state economy, like the national economy, is expected to continue to improve.

For the current fiscal year, the state now is expected to take in $5.37 billion in tax revenue for the current fiscal year and for the next fiscal year $5.46 billion. For the last completed fiscal year, 2013, which ran from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, the state collected $5.12 billion in revenue.

Legislators face a Monday deadline to pass a state budget. The session is scheduled to end by early April.

About $70 million of the anticipated new revenue will be one-time funds from the settlement of lawsuits by the office of Attorney General Jim Hood. Both Reeves and Gunn said their goal is to eliminate the use of one-time money to fund recurring expenses, meaning the settlement funds could be diverted to various reserves the state maintains.

The new funds will make it easier to meet legislative goals of a teacher pay raise and a school to train new state troopers.

“… This money certainly helps,” said Gunn after the Budget Committee raised the estimate without a dissenting vote Tuesday morning before a packed committee room of lobbyists, fellow legislators and state agency officials.

Reeves said having the additional funds does not mean the budgeting process will be easy.

“We have more good ideas than we have money,” Reeves said.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the additional revenue proves the leadership could accomplish the goals legislative Democrats developed early in the session of providing pay raises for teachers and state employees and of beginning a process of phasing in full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP, which provides the state’s share of the basics of operating local school districts, has been underfunded more than $1.2 billion since 2008.

Bryan said districts that try to do more than the minimum by hiring additional teachers will be punished if the state provides funds for a teacher pay raise without increasing the funding level for MAEP.

“Additional money is critical for MAEP,” Bryan said.

Senate Democrats were successful in passing in their chamber, with some Republican support, an additional $60 million for MAEP for the upcoming fiscal year. They narrowly lost on efforts to provide a $1,000 across-the-board pay raise for state employees.

Of the increase in the revenue projection, Gov. Phil Bryant said, “I urge lawmakers to fund critical public safety needs like a trooper school, additional assistant district attorneys, law enforcement strike teams, and staffing and equipment for the state crime lab. However, we must still budget conservatively.”

The state already has more than $500 million in reserve fund, not counting any additional revenue from the increase in the projection.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com