OUR OPINION: Underfunding raises surplus importance

By NEMS Daily Journal

News that year-ending balances will show black is always welcomed, and it’s even better in a state like Mississippi, whose budget fortunes have been less than fully healthy since the recession and other woes started in late 2007.
House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, told Daily Journal capital correspondent Bobby Harrison last week that Mississippi can expect a “substantial surplus” when books close on fiscal year 2013 on June 30, but exact results won’t be known until sometime in July.
Frierson suggested but did not state flatly that $300 million might be in range.
Collections through May are $228.1 million, or 5.5 percent, above the estimate – not counting an additional $35 million from the settlement of lawsuits by Attorney General Jim Hood.
Collections are $215 million, or 5.1 percent, above what was collected during the same 11-month period in fiscal year 2012. Fiscal year 2014 begins July 1.
State revenue includes sales taxes on retail items, income taxes, taxes on income, casino gambling taxes, taxes on insurance premiums and various other levies.
As a practical matter, it’s not likely the 2013 budget surplus will become available until the 2014 legislative session, providing time to assess where it can best be spent.
It is all but certain that some legislators and perhaps executive branch officials have started conversations – but not necessarily formal discussions – about what state program most needs additional cash.
Prisons, drug courts, public education, Department of Revenue tax refund processing and many other budget items are underfunded and not performing well because of it, in the view of a substantial number of legislators. It’s probable that other constituencies within the general fund budget will bring up what might be in a surplus for them.
It is unlikely that use of surplus funds would arise in a special session, should one be called to deal with Medicaid costs, reauthorization or expansion, but it is not impossible.
The 2014 budget was approved during the 2013 session, but budgets can be amended by legislative action and frequently are enlarged or reduced by legislative action as situations develop.
Some reports have been generally more optimistic about Mississippi’s economy, so rising revenue collections would be a reasonable expectation with economic strengthening.
The picture is brighter than in recent years, and that could enhance funding prospects in 2014 for many state agencies and institutions.