BOBBY HARRISON: Budget hearings provide pre-session theater in Capitol

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

JACKSON – This week’s hearings of the Legislative Budget Committee could be viewed as the first public event in the development of a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

It obviously will be a long, bumpy road before the Legislature adopts a final budget and the governor signs it into law, presumably in April 2014.

The 14-member Budget Committee, which consists of key legislators, plays a big role in developing that budget. They meet with agency heads, hear their budget requests before developing a budget proposal which serves as a starting point for the full Legislature in adopting the final budget.

The Budget Committee has been meeting with agency heads this week.

Agencies submit their budget requests to the Legislative Budget Committee’s staff before the executive directors meet with the panel in the formal hearings. Actually, the Budget Committee could develop its recommendations without the formal hearings, though they do provide a level of transparency for the public, and they give legislators an opportunity to meet one of their core functions – to provide oversight for the public.

At one time the hearings took up much more time in the late summer or early fall. But through the years, the length of the time set aside for the hearings has been reduced.

Perhaps, that first reduction occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, which was the day the hearings began that year. Obviously, we all remember what happened that day.

It was that day, just before the start of the hearings that during a casual conversation then-Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, later to become House speaker, said that the events of the day would result in dramatic changes. He rightly predicted that no longer would people be able to walk in and out of public buildings without going through a layer of security.

The event that resulted in a larger reduction in the number of days set aside for the hearings was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Because of all the chaos and destruction caused by the storm that hit in August, consuming the time of many state leaders, the hearing schedule was abbreviated.

Legislative leaders liked the shorter schedule.

Through the years there have been some fireworks at the hearings.

Some of those fireworks occurred Wednesday during the presentation by Department of Public Safety Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz who was raked over the proverbial coals by several legislative leaders, but primarily by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

The lieutenant governor questioned Santa Cruz, saying DPS raised fees on various licenses and permits it issues without obtaining legislative approval, provided pay raises without legislative approval and took funds intended to buy new trooper patrol cars and used for other purposes.

Committee members were openly critical of the agency, saying its leaders could not justify the whopping 45 percent general fund increase they were requesting for their agency.

It was an insightful session and good theatre unless your name was Albert Santa Cruz.

Perhaps the most memorable moment from the Budget Committee meetings occurred years ago when then-Attorney General Mike Moore had announced his lawsuit to recoup government money from the cigarette manufacturers for treating smoking-related illnesses. At the Budget Committee meetings, then House Appropriations Chair Charlie Capps, D-Cleveland, warned Moore not to spend any state funds on the lawsuit because he said Moore had no chance of succeeding.

Capps fit the stereotypical image of a Delta legislator, who so many years ago ran the state. The white-haired power broker was seldom seen without his cigar that he constantly smoked or chewed on.

Of course, Moore succeeded in the lawsuit without the benefit of state funds.

But through the years, Charlie Capps and his legislative successors have been thankful for the literally billions of dollars in tobacco lawsuit funds that have helped prop up the state budget.

The Budget Committee members meeting this week also will take advantage of those funds to help build a budget.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.