By Bill Crawford
Gov. Phil Bryant has recommended a frugal, balanced budget to the Legislature, saying “We must take a balanced approach and spend only the money we have.”
Highlights of his recommendation include:
• $24 million in new spending to improve education outcomes;
• $8.5 million in new spending to expand and upgrade the Mississippi Highway Patrol;
• Tax reform to benefit small businesses;
• Reducing the state’s bonded indebtedness;
• Level funding for schools, colleges, and universities; and
• 1.5 percent cuts for most other agencies.
“As Mississippi continues to recover from several consecutive years of stifled growth,” he said, “we must make necessary adjustments and strive to do more with less.”
Unlike his predecessor’s last two budget proposals, however, Bryant’s proposal recommends no bold steps to restructure or shrink the size of state government. There was no recommendation to combine agencies, such as the State Forestry Commission with the Department of Agriculture and Commerce; no recommendation for government entities to merge and share back office operations; no recommendation to reduce school districts to one per county; no recommendation to shift the Department of Transportation Enforcement Division to Department of Public Safety; no recommendation to temporarily lift State Personnel Board oversight to allow agency heads to rightsize staffing; and so on.
Rather than cut and prune state government, Bryant apparently prefers to squeeze non-priority agencies for needed money.
One of those budget components he wants to squeeze is debt service. “We are spending $376 million of general funds on debt service,” he said. He proposes to cap the state’s bonded indebtedness by issuing no more bonds than retire each year. Then, he plans to reduce overall debt by moving some items to a pay-as-you go basis.
The governor also wants to halt the process of using one-time funds to pay for ongoing expenses, calling that “an unsustainable practice.”
“We must commit ourselves to reaching our goals through prioritizing spending, avoiding undue regulation and taxation, and adhering to sustainable budgeting practices,” said Bryant.
For years Bryant has touted performance based budgeting. “A performance based budgeting system will make government more efficient and effective by funding agencies based on performance, not politics,” he said.
During his time as lieutenant governor, the Legislature failed to implement Bryant’s performance based budgeting system. His new budget includes $250,000 for the State Auditor to measure state spending against stated agency performance standards as a step towards a new system.
“When we tie our spending to results, we stop spending money on things that do not work, and tax dollars are put to use where they make the most impact.”
While Bryant can recommend, only the Legislature can enact a budget. How much of this the Legislature will agree to remains to be seen.
Bill Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.