Agencies fume, legislators triumph in budget battle

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Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks with reporters April 21 at the Mississippi Capitol about his impressions on the legislative session.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks with reporters April 21 at the Mississippi Capitol about his impressions on the legislative session.

Three weeks until the state begins its fiscal year, agency heads are increasingly anxious about what they say is a muddy picture for their departments — and the state overall.

Since the end of the legislative session in April, Mississippi Today has spoken with agency heads who have expressed frustration at what they called an unusually sluggish and delayed budget process.

The result was a $6.2 billion spending plan along with changes to state law that make it difficult to plan for next year’s spending on operations, services and staffing.

“We’ll be sending people home. We just don’t know how many,” said Dr. Mary Currier, the state health officer, during a budget hearing at the Capitol on Wednesday.

At the hearing, called by the Legislative Black Caucus, the executive directors of the departments of Health and Mental Health repeated concerns about the effects of a new state law that moves monies in so-called special funds from under the control of agency heads into the general fund and also ends the practices of state agencies billing each other or transferring money to each other.

But Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, one of the state’s key budget writers, fired back at those agency heads, saying he has worked with Gov. Phil Bryant’s office and the agencies to bring transparency to the budget process.

“I’ve said repeatedly that this is not going to be an easy transition,” Reeves told Mississippi Today in a phone interview. “Change is always tough in government because people don’t want to do anything different.

“They feel like if they’ve done it one way for 20 years, they want to keep it going that way,” said Reeves, R-Florence. “What we’re trying to do is bring transparency to the budget process so that any taxpayer can know where their dollars are being spent. So that’s where we find ourselves today.”

“You know, there have been ones (agency heads) who go to the media and cry, and there are those who are trying to find a solution and work with the executive and legislative branches to get those done,” Reeves said in the interview.

Budget delays

A glance at the website for the Legislative Budget Office (LBO) underscores the claims of the agency heads that the state is way behind on releasing concrete budget numbers for them to work with. Each year, the LBO publishes a document known as the budget bulletin.

The LBO site lists summaries for the 2012 through 2015 sessions along with publication dates; each budget bulletin for those years was published in April or early May. As of Thursday, the summary for 2016 had not been published.

“I would anticipate that’s going to be released in next couple days,” Reeves said when asked about the delay. “To be frankly honest with you, first of all, the session this year was 120-day session rather than normal 90-day session. I think it’s fair to say there’s been a little more scrutiny put on these reports this particular year.”

The report for the last 120-day session, 2012, was published on May 8 of that year.

One widely discussed reason for extra budget scrutiny is the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act, which Gov. Phil Bryant signed last month. The law prohibits state agencies from charging each other fees for rent or other services and sweeps money previously allocated for these fees into the state general fund.

Although supporters say that eliminating these fees will ultimately simplify the budget allocation process, several agency heads argue that in the short term it creates a web of complications – and potential shortfalls.

Attorney General Jim Hood

Mississippi Today

Attorney General Jim Hood

Attorney General Jim Hood has decried the legislation because he says it sweeps money from the crime-victims compensation fund and payments to disabled police and firefighters, both funded by special assessments, into the general fund.

“State agencies stand to lose $20 million in federal funding because the federal government will not reimburse under some grants unless agencies have a receipt for rent or services paid to another agency in an arms-length transaction,” Hood said in a statement in early May.

Louwlynn Vanzetta Williams, director of the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel, told Mississippi Today in a recent interview that her agency would save money on rent and technology services, but she remains uncertain whether her agency would have to continue paying for open-records requests and other documents.

The Secretary of State’s office, which utilizes special funds for payments to election officials, Autism Board support, and maintenance of seized cemeteries, requested an opinion from Hood’s office, “in part to clarify fiscal year 2017 appropriations as well as certain statutory payments to be made in the fiscal year 2017,” Secretary of State spokeswoman Anna Moak said.

For agencies that didn’t rely on federal reimbursements, the transition has been more clear. In 2016, the Gaming Commission had a budget of $10.7 million, which included $1.3 million allocated for inter-agency transfers. After the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act, the commission has been given a budget of $9.4 million.

“So technically, I call that ‘level-funding,’” said Arthur Godfrey, executive director of the Gaming Commission. “And if I’m able to use my 9.4 then I feel very secure. But if revenue collections are not what they need to be – well, we’ll deal with it whatever it is.”

Blind vote

During the 72-hour period in which the budget was approved by both houses, lawmakers in on both sides of the aisle raised concerns about the seemingly rushed process.

In essence, House members voted blindly on appropriations as they were not given projected numbers despite many pleas to House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clark, R-Hollandale, gave senators a three-column spreadsheet with proposed appropriation amounts listed and how they compared to last fiscal year’s appropriations. It was clear the proposed numbers did not include sweeps from the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act, and many lawmakers cried foul.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

“It’s complicated when you look at these agencies and what they’re being reduced, but it’s clear that some of that reduction are charges they no longer have to pay (under the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act),” Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said on the floor the day before the budget was finalized. “What is the actual effect on an agency’s budget? What are the percentages? That’s what we need to be able to look at to see if we agree with those priorities or not.”

Indeed, many of the numbers on the Senate spreadsheet do not match the numbers that made it into final appropriations. The Senate spreadsheet slated the Library Commission to receive $10,996,671. The actual appropriation was $10,502,824. The spreadsheet said the Department of Environmental Quality would receive $13,170,043. The actual appropriation was $10,790,043.

Those appropriations figures were added to the bills after the Legislature approved them but before Bryant signed them into law.

The health factor

Agencies charged with overseeing the health of Mississippians are among those that have been most vocal about the budgetary uncertainty.

Currier, the state’s health officer, has said the Mississippi State Department of Health’s budget was slashed 13.6 percent. But information from legislative budget writers shows only a 0.4 percent reduction to $63.1 million from the current fiscal year total.

The discrepancy, again, revolves around the transparency bill changes that moved special funds to the general fund and stops state agencies from transferring funds to each other.

Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer

Mississippi Dept. of Health

Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer

Currier said her agency would save $5.2 million because they would no longer have to pay certain expenses like rent. However, she said, the agency now will have to pay $9.2 million for domestic violence victims, a program that her office oversees. Previously that money had come from special funds. The difference is a $4 million loss for her department.

In addition, Currier said her agency could lose $20 million and be forced to close health clinics if the bill prohibits the state’s Division of Medicaid from paying claims.

Reeves said it was neither his interpretation nor the intent of the transparency act to slow down Medicaid payments.

“Those who want to complain want to interpret the bill in a such a way that Medicaid can’t pay for services provided to individual patients through another another agency,” Reeves said.

“That’s not the intent of the law. So we’re going to have to deal with it,” Reeves told Mississippi Today, raising the idea of some legislative modifications to the act in the next legislative session.

Diana Mikula, the executive director of the Department of Mental Health, said her agency’s budget was trimmed by $8.3 million and that more than 100 beds and other cuts have already taken place at Mississippi State Hospital, East Mississippi State Hospital and South Mississippi State Hospital.

However, Reeves questions the efficiency of some Mental Health programs and their costs.

“We spent $3.8 million on a program at (Mississippi State Hospital at) Whitfield and East Mississippi – a program that’s needed, by the way — and we have no clue and they can’t tell me if it was successful or not,” he said. “They can’t tell me if it helped one patient.”

“We’re moving to an evidence-based budgeting process, which is good for the taxpayers long term,” Reeves said. “It’s ensuring that the dollars we spend are being spent in an efficient way and that they’re accomplishing the goals that the legislature set forth.”

  • redcreek

    Clearly the “Budget Simplification and Transparency Act” is the exact opposite of its name, in keeping with the rethug spinners’ “1984”-type lying. Tater Tot is arrogant way beyond his intelligence–but that’s redundant: arrogance IS overextending one’s capabilities.