Miss. Lawmakers Face April Deadline for Budget | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Miss. Lawmakers Face April Deadline for Budget

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi budget writers have released their initial proposals for fiscal 2014 but are months away from deciding exactly how much the state will spend on education, health care and other services.

The 2014 fiscal year begins July 1.

There are significant differences between a plan drafted by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and a separate one drafted by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, a 14-member group dominated by the GOP.

At this point in the budget-writing process, it's normal for the governor and legislators to have differences — and history shows neither side should expect to get everything it wants. Lawmakers face an early April deadline to put a final budget on Bryant's desk.

Bryant, who's beginning his second year as governor, calls the legislators' draft a "starting point."

"You could take, I believe, now the EBR, the executive budget recommendation, and implement it and to be able to say this is exactly why we've determined that level of funding," Bryant said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who serves on the Budget Committee, said legislative leaders have suggested a realistic spending plan.

"If there were no changes to be made, the vast majority of agencies, if managed properly and appropriately, could deliver the same level of services that they're currently delivering and would be fine," Reeves said of the proposal he helped write.

Experts expect Mississippi to collect just over $5 billion in revenue during fiscal 2014. The governor and legislators generally expand the budget by dipping into reserves and using sources of money that are available only one year at a time, such as payments from lawsuit settlements.

Bryant proposes spending about $5.8 billion of state money, slightly more than the nearly $5.7 billion the state is spending in the current year. Legislators propose spending about $5.5 billion.

One big difference? Lawmakers propose socking more away in financial reserves as a cushion for future hardship.

"The budget, of course, is ... something we're having to keep a careful eye on because the economy continues to lag and revenues are not what we would like them to be," said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who's on the Budget Committee. "We have to stay within our means."

Both proposals would reduce the state's reliance on money that's available only one year at a time, but legislators would do so more dramatically. Bryant's budget calls for a $93 million reduction in the "one-time" funds, while legislators propose a drop of $413 million.

Neither plan recommends increasing taxes or fees. And neither plan recommends pay raises for state employees.

Bryant's budget lists some education funding the legislative plan doesn't have, including $15 million for literacy training for teachers. Bryant wants more emphasis on ensuring children can read at grade-level standards by third grade. While Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said he believes most lawmakers agree that reading proficiency by third grade is important, House and Senate leaders at this point have not committed to the $15 million Bryant recommends.

The governor wants to create a merit-pay program for teachers in four districts that have volunteered to be part of a pilot program. The legislative budget, for now, does not include a merit-pay element.

Bryant proposes that most state agencies take a 1.5 percent budget cut. Legislators recommend cuts for some programs but would give many roughly the same amount of money they're receiving this year.

Bryant would exempt several parts of government from budget cuts, including public safety programs and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Under the legislative proposal, the medical center would see a slight reduction.

The legislative plan does not include recommendations to plug holes in the current year's budget, including a $30 million shortfall that Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said exists for the prison system. Reeves said the lack of recommendation does not mean a flat "no" to more funding. Rather, it gives lawmakers a chance to pick apart the details of such requests.

"We don't plan to fund any deficits that aren't justified," Reeves said. "I plan to sit down with Commissioner Epps and just try to figure out why there is anticipated to be a $30 million deficit."

For fiscal 2014, the Division of Medicaid initially requested about $920 million from the state. Bryant's recommended budget knocked that number down to about $860 million, and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee knocked it down further, to about $808 million, which would be a slight decrease from what Medicaid is receiving this year.

Officials say it's difficult to predict Medicaid expenses because enrollment can go up or down, and recipients' use of medical services can fluctuate.

"We're trying to find a medium where we're not underfunding Medicaid but we're also making sure that we're not providing more revenue there than they need," Bryant said.

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