By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – During last week’s Legislative Budget Committee hearings, members consistently said they were scouring for programs that were ineffective or duplicative with an eye toward cutting or eliminating them.
At the conclusion of the four days of hearings where the 14 legislative leaders heard from a litany of state agency heads, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, was asked if he had identified programs that could be cut. The first-term speaker said that would be the next step as the committee begins the process of developing a budget proposal that will be released in December and will be used by the full Legislature as a guideline when it meets in January.
“That (looking for possible programs to cut) is the process we are about to engage in right here,” Gunn said.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves predicted that the committee’s budget proposal will place priority on spending for education while most other agencies will receive less funding or see no change.
The total state-supported budget for the current year is $5.8 billion, or $127.5 million more than the previous year.
Reeves said agency heads have cumulatively requested $750 million more than they received for the current budget. That number has traditionally been a combined total of $1 billion or more.
Reeves said the lower requests indicated agency heads “came in to the hearings and asked for what they thought they really need.”
Obviously, the state cannot fund all those requests. After two consecutive years of dips in revenue beginning in 2008, the state has seen growth of more than 5 percent for the past two years.
Gov. Phil Bryant will meet with the Budget Committee in November to adopt a revenue projection, based on recommendations from the state’s financial experts, for the upcoming fiscal year. Growth similar to the past two years would give the Legislature an extra $300 million to $400 million to appropriate.
Whatever the amount of new money, first the Budget Committee, and then the full Legislature and governor will have some difficult choices to make.
Democrats are clamoring to at least begin the process of fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of the basics of operating local school districts. It would take roughly $300 million to fully fund MAEP during the 2014 legislative session and restore other programs that have been cut, such as teacher supply funds.
Plus, community colleges are pointing out that under state law they are about $90 million short of full funding. Universities are requesting a more modest $31.8 million increase.
Medicaid, which provides health care for the disabled, poor pregnant women, poor children and the elderly, requested an increase of $143 million, including a deficit request of $77.2 million for the current fiscal year.
Reeves pointed out that at the same time in 2012, Medicaid requested deficit funding of more than $100 million, but by the time the 2013 session came, no deficit funding was needed. He is hoping the same happens in the 2014 session.
One glaring issue barely discussed at the hearings was whether to expand Medicaid to cover an additional 300,000 people, primarily the working poor, as is allowed under new federal law. In general, the Democratic minority in the House and Senate has supported the expansion, while the Republican majority, including the governor, has been adamantly opposed.
For the first two years, starting in January, the federal government is slated to pay 100 percent of the health care costs associated with the expansion. After that, the amount paid by the federal government will be stair-stepped down to 90 percent.
Despite those favorable-to-the-state matching rates, the Republican majority said there will be additional costs that the state cannot afford.
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, one of only three Democrats on the 14-member panel, said, “We are going to be losing a tremendous amount of money that we could receive at no cost to the state.”
It appears this year the Legislature will not have to absorb another increase in the amount contributed to the Public Employees Retirement System. Last year, to help make the program solvent, the Legislature plugged an additional $44 million into the retirement system.
Pat Robertson, PERS executive director, told the Budget Committee no additional funding is needed.