BOBBY HARRISON: Legislators should look inward for cuts

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

The 2007 session was a heady time for the Mississippi Legislature and then-Gov. Haley Barbour.

The state was coming off three consecutive years of strong revenue growth, including two years of double-digit increases, thanks in large part to rebuilding following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

In 2007, the Legislature was able to give pay raises to teachers, state employees and address many other needs in state government. Seldom is the Mississippi Legislature in position to address all the needs that it did in the 2007 session.

In the 2008 fiscal year, which began in July following the 2007 session, state revenue collections soared to $4.94 billion.

Then the recession hit with an unprecedented drop in revenue collections. For the first time in memory, revenue was less than the previous year for two consecutive years.

The budgeting options for Barbour and the Legislature were limited during that period. If not for a dramatic increase in federal funds coming to the state during the recession, it is reasonable to believe there would have been schools that could not have kept their doors open, hospitals that would have been forced into closure and inmates who would have been released on the street in large numbers because of the inability to pay to incarcerate them.

Revenue did not surpass the levels of Fiscal Year 2008 until the 2013 fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2012, until June 30, 2013.

State revenue experts project revenue to be $5.22 billion for the current fiscal year and $5.36 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Many state agencies and entities that were cut during the economic downturn have now or will receive funds from the Legislature that exceed what they got in that heady 2007 session for the 2008 fiscal year.

For instance, according to the budget documents compiled by Barbour at the time and currently by Gov. Phil Bryant, in state-source funds, Corrections received $330.2 million in Fiscal Year 2008 and $337.9 in Fiscal Year 2014. Many other agencies, including the universities, community colleges and Medicaid are receiving more funds.

On the other hand, there are agencies that have not regained their Fiscal Year 2008 funding level, including Public Safety, the Mississippi Development Authority and, most notably, education.

Funding for kindergarten through 12th grade education is around $100 million less than it was in Fiscal Year 2008 in the budget that has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate.

It should not be a surprise that many state agencies have not returned to 2008 fiscal year levels. Coming into office in 2012, Tate Reeves as lieutenant governor, Philip Gunn as speaker and their respective leadership teams in the House and Senate preached fiscal discipline.

They stressed that some agencies that already had undergone cuts in the previous term during the midst of the recession might endure more decreases in funding. They said they were going to look for areas to cut with a razor-like focus to make state government more efficient.

Legislative leaders stressed the importance of fiscal conservatism when they presented their budget proposal late last year and have continued to stress it this session.

One agency where legislative leaders have had a difficult time finding areas to cut is in its own backyard – the budget to operate the Legislature.

In Fiscal Year 2008, $25.5 million was appropriated to the Legislature to pay for operations and travel. For the current year, $28.5 million was provided for the 174 legislators and their staff.

The leaders apparently believe the budget for its own operation is as efficient as it can be. Last week the House rejected a plan offered by Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, to take $500,000 from the Legislature’s travel budget to help fund a program to curb the state’s infant mortality rate, which is consistently the highest in the nation.

Now, the budget for the Legislature is small potatoes when compared with how much it costs, for instance, to run the state’s local school districts, operate universities and community colleges, to provide health care to the needy.

Still, the guys preaching fiscal conservatism for the state and saying they could find areas in state government to cut that the previous regime did not find, could not find any areas in their budget that needed cutting.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (662) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.