BOBBY HARRISON: Legislators left little decision-making to themselves

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Men and women serving in the Mississippi Legislature deserve credit for participating in a difficult and time-consuming election this past year during a long, hot summer to earn the right to set policy for the state.
It is a distinct honor they fought for and won.
Yet, it’s almost as if they don’t want the responsibility of actually setting that policy.
Last week as the state House debated an amendment offered by Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, to give the local districts an additional $25 million, Appropriations chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, bemoaned the fact that he and other legislative leaders had recently met to raise the official revenue estimate, creating a feeding frenzy and the possibility of irresponsible spending by the Legislature . In other words, Frierson said members were looking for all sorts of items on which to spend the additional funds.
Perhaps, the obvious should be pointed out here that proposing to spend $25 million of more than $225 million of new revenue does not by most objective measures constitute a feeding frenzy.
Frierson said he would have preferred that the meeting to raise the revenue estimate be postponed until just before a few House and Senate leaders, such as himself, met in conference to work out the differences in the budgets passed by the House and Senate.
That way, those handful of leaders, could decide in conference how to spend the about $225 million in additional money that is available because of the increase in the revenue estimate. Then, in literally the last week of the session, the full Legislature could have voted to either accept or reject the budget developed by Frierson and the other leaders in that conference committee process. And it should be noted that if members reject the conference committee recommendation on the budget, it will literally throw the Legislature into a state of chaos, making an extension of the session possible.
In other words, Frierson wanted he and the other leaders, such as Lt. Gov. Tate Reves and Speaker Philip Gunn, to have essentially the only say in how that new revenue, available because of an uptick in state tax collections, should be spent or saved.
When he bemoaned the fact on the House floor that raising the revenue estimate created an unwanted feeding frenzy, he got an amen from some of the members in the chamber.
It appears the members are perfectly happy to allow the leadership to decide how to spend the new revenue and they would prefer to rubber stamp that decision rather than to actually have to make a tough vote themselves.
Reeves, who is the chair of the Legislative Budget Committee, made the decision to meet and raise the revenue estimate before the members voted on the budget. He said he wanted a transparent budget process. In other words, he wanted the full House and Senate to know how much money was available as they voted on a budget before conference members met to work out the differences between what the two chambers passed. Apparently, many of the House leadership, such as Frierson, would have preferred Reeves wait until later in the process to call a meeting to raise the estimate.
But lo and behold, thanks to a rules change pushed through early this year by Gunn and Reeves, the rank-and-file member is limited in his or her ability to have a say in how that new money is spent anyway. The rule change says a member cannot offer an amendment to increase funding to one agency unless the money is taken from another agency.
Thanks to the increase in the revenue estimate, the House budget proposal leaves $200 million unspent. But a member cannot offer an amendment on the House floor to give $25 million of that unspent money to local school districts, which are $250 million below full funding under the formula in state law.
The members voted for that rule change. They said in essence they wanted the leadership to have tremendous – almost sole power – over the budget process.
They worked long and hard this past year to win election and get to the state Capitol. Perhaps they don’t want to have to take any tough votes that might impact their ability to win their next election.
It should be noted that Frierson is a good guy and he worked hard to put together what members from both sides of the aisle say is a competent budget proposal. That is a good thing because those members have essentially ceded their authority to have any impact in the process.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.