/Agencies fume, legislators triumph in budget battle

Agencies fume, legislators triumph in budget battle

Mississippi Today spoke with agency heads about their frustrations at the slow and often delayed budget process since the April legislative session ended. It was a $6.2Billion spending plan with state law changes that made it more difficult to plan for next years’s operations, services, and staffing spending. “We will be sending people home. “We don’t know how many,” Dr. Mary Currier, the state healthcare officer, said during Wednesday’s budget hearing at Capitol. The Legislative Black Caucus called the hearing. Executive directors of the departments for Health and Mental Health raised concerns about the impact of a new state law. It moves money in special funds that are under agency heads’ control into the general fund. It also eliminates the practice of state agencies billing one another or transferring money. Lt. Governor. Tate Reeves is one of the key state budget writers and he reacted by saying that he had worked with Gov. Phil Bryant’s office, and the agencies, are working to improve transparency in the budget process. Reeves said in a telephone interview that he has repeatedly stated that it would not be an easy transition. Change is difficult in government because people aren’t willing to make any changes. Reeves (R-Florence) said that people feel comfortable sticking with the same way they have for 20 years. “What we are trying to do is bring transparency into the budget process so taxpayers can see where their money is going. That’s where we are today.” Reeves stated in an interview that there have been agency heads who cry to the media. “There are also those who try to find a solution to their problems and work with the executive branch and legislative branches to do so.” Budget delays. A quick glance at the website of the Legislative Budget Office reveals that agency heads claim that the state is behind in releasing budget numbers to them. The budget bulletin is a document that the LBO publishes each year. LBO lists summaries of the 2012-2015 sessions and publication dates. Each budget bulletin was published in April, or early May. The summary for 2016 was not published as of Thursday. Reeves stated that he expected the summary to be published within the next few days. To be honest, this was a 120-day session instead of the normal 90-day session. It’s fair to say that these reports have been subjected to a bit more scrutiny this year. The 2012 report, covering the 120-day session, was published May 8. The Budget Transparency and Simplification Act, which Governor. Phil Bryant signed the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act last month. The law bans state agencies charging one another rent or service fees and transfers money that was previously designated for such fees to the state general fund. While supporters claim that these fees will simplify budget allocation, many agency heads believe that it creates a complex web of problems and could lead to shortfalls. Attorney General Jim Hood denounces the legislation, claiming that it transfers money from the crime victim’s compensation fund, and the payments to firefighters and disabled police officers, both of which are funded by special assessments, to the general fund. Hood stated in a statement that $20 million will be lost in federal funding to state agencies. Hood stated this in a statement released in May. Hood also said that the federal government would not reimburse agencies under certain grants unless they have a receipt for rent, services or other payments in an arms-length transaction. Louwlynn Vanzetta Williams is the director of the Office of Capital Post Conviction Counsel. She told Mississippi Today that her agency would make savings on rent and technology services. However, she was not sure if her agency would continue to pay for open-records and other documents. Special funds are used by the Secretary of State’s Office for payments to election officials and support to the Autism Board. The office also maintains seized cemeteries. Hood’s spokeswoman Anna Moak stated that Hood requested an opinion “in part to clarify fiscal years 2017 appropriations, as well as certain statutory payment to be made in 2017,”. The transition was easier for agencies that did not rely on federal reimbursements. The Gaming Commission had a budget in 2016 of $10.7million, with $1.3 million for inter-agency transfers. The budget for the Gaming Commission has now been increased to $9.4million, thanks to the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act. Arthur Godfrey (executive director of the Gaming Commission) said, “So technically, that’s level-funding.” “And if my 9.4 is available, then I feel very secure. However, revenue collections may not be what they need – we’ll deal whatever it is.” During the 72 hour period during which both houses approved the budget, blind votes were held. Both sides raised concerns about the apparently rushed process. The House members voted blindly in appropriations because they weren’t given projected numbers, despite numerous pleas from Herb Frierson (R-Poplarville), Senator Appropriations Chairman Buck Clark (R-Hollanddale) gave senators a three column spreadsheet listing proposed appropriations and how they compare to the last fiscal year’s. Many lawmakers protested that the numbers proposed did not include sweeps under the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act. It’s difficult to look at these agencies and the reductions they are receiving, but it’s obvious that some of the reductions are charges they no more have to pay (under Budget Transparency and Simplification Act),” Senator David Blount, D.Jackson stated on the floor just before the budget was approved. What is the effect on an agency’s budget? What percentages are there? What are the percentages? According to the Senate spreadsheet, $10,996,671 was allocated for the Library Commission. Actual appropriation was $10 502,824. According to the spreadsheet, $13,170,000.043 would be given to the Department of Environmental Quality. Actual appropriation was $10790,043. These appropriations numbers were added to bills after they had been approved by the Legislature, but before Bryant signed them into effect. The budgetary uncertainty has been particularly criticized by the Mississippi Health Factor Agencies, which are responsible for monitoring the health of Mississippians. Currier, the state’s chief health officer, stated that the budget for the Mississippi State Department of Health was cut 13.6 percent. However, information provided by legislative budget writers indicates that the total for fiscal year 2017 saw a reduction of 0.4% to $63.1million. This discrepancy is again due to transparency bill changes which moved special funds to general funds and stopped state agencies from transferring money to one another. Currier claimed that her agency would be able to save $5.2million by not having to pay rent and other expenses. She said that the agency will now have to pay $9.2million for domestic violence victims. This program is overseen by her office. This money was previously from special funds. Her department will suffer a loss of $4 million from the difference. Currier stated that her agency could lose $20million and have to close clinics if the bill prevents the Division of Medicaid from making claims. Reeves stated that it was not his interpretation or the intention of the transparency act to slowdown Medicaid payments. Reeves stated that those who are upset want to interpret the bill so that Medicaid cannot pay for services provided to patients by another agency. Reeves stated that this is not the intention of the law. Reeves stated that Mississippi Today will have to address the issue, and suggested the possibility of legislative modifications to the act during the next legislative session. Diana Mikula, executive director of Department of Mental Health, stated that her agency’s budget had been cut by $8.3million and that more than 100 beds have been removed from Mississippi State Hospital, East Mississippi State Hospital, and South Mississippi State Hospital. Reeves, however, questions the effectiveness of certain Mental Health programs as well as their cost. He stated that $3.8 million was spent on a program at the (Mississippi State Hospital, Whitfield and East Mississippi) – a program which was needed. “We don’t know if it was successful and they won’t tell us if it was successful.” Reeves stated that they are moving towards evidence-based budgeting, which is better for taxpayers in the long-term. It’s about ensuring that dollars are spent efficiently and that they achieve the goals set by the legislature. To support this work, you can make a recurring gift today to celebrate our Spring Member Drive and help us continue important work such as this one. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. Republish this Story