/Legislative leaders’ budget plan leaves flexibility for new Legislature

Legislative leaders’ budget plan leaves flexibility for new Legislature

Tradition has it that the Budget Committee’s recommendations are viewed as a guideline for the full Legislature, which convenes in January. Wednesday’s recommendation would authorize $6.27 billion for state-support funds. This is $93.7 million less than the amount appropriated during the current fiscal year 2019, which began July 1. The Budget Committee has left $1.29 billion in other reserves. The majority of these reserves are reserved for budget emergencies and originally intended for specific purposes. However, $105 million is general funds that are not encumbered. They can be used during the 2020 session, without any legislative changes. “We want to allow the Senate and House maximum flexibility in the 2020 session.” That is precisely what we did,” stated Lt. Governor. Tate Reeves has been co-chairing the Budget Committee for eight years with House Speaker Philip Gunn. Reeves, now governor-elect, will most likely outline his budget and legislative priorities at some point in January. Gunn is expected to be reelected to his third term in the speaker’s office. Delbert Hosemann will serve as the incoming lieutenant Governor and alternate annually as chair of the committee. Hosemann and Gunn will also appoint new members to the committee in the 2020 session that begins January 7. When Gunn and Hosemann were asked about the possibility that teachers would be paid a raise during the 2020 session, Gunn replied, “Absolutely (that’s) always possible.” Hosemann and Reeves also promised teachers a raise during the 2020 session. Hosemann and others have also spoken out about the possibility for a general pay increase for state workers. Gunn mentioned other needs on Wednesday, including more funding for infrastructure and mental healthcare. He said, “I could go down many things.” Reeves noted that the budget proposal was based on a conservative estimate of revenue, even though state revenue collections have increased by 6.3 percent ($135.5million) in the first five months. Because the new four-year term’s first session can last 125 days instead of 90, it allows legislators to get a better understanding of the state’s revenue situation. This may allow them to increase the official estimate and give them more money to spend. The budget recommendation includes $2.3 billion (a 3.5% increase) for Mississippi Adequate Education Program. This program provides state support to local school districts and is perennially underfunded. MAEP still needs more than $200million to receive full funding. The proposal would see the largest cut to general education (which includes the Department of Education as well as programs that are administered for local school districts) at $171.7 million, or 27.3 percent. According to Pete Smith, a spokesperson for the Department, that number is misleading. In fact, the 2019 session saw legislators allocate money to the general education budget for a teacher raise. These funds will be transferred to the MAEP budget this year. The Budget Committee recommended $18.4million to fully fund the $1,500 annual teacher pay increase passed during the 2019 session. However, the Department of Education miscalculated and did not fully fund it. Many other large agencies were recommended to be funded at a lower level than the current fiscal year. For Medicaid, higher education and Child Protection Services, cuts were recommended. Except for Child Protection Services, which was 8.6 per cent, most of the recommended cuts were below 5 percent. Based on the available revenue, it is most likely that all those agencies will be funded at levels higher than what was proposed by Budget Committee.