‘Transparency’ bill effects are muddy

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State agency bean counters are crunching the numbers to figure out precisely how they will be affected by budget cuts, but agency leaders say that one little-discussed piece of the legislation further fogs the picture.

The Budget Transparency and Simplification Act, which awaits action from Gov. Phil Bryant, sweeps cash from so-called special fund agencies into the general fund and prohibits state agencies from charging or collecting fees from each other.

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale

Lawmakers agreed to a roughly $6.1 billion budget. In the closing days of the session, Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and sponsored the bill, said an “underground economy” of interagency transfers would net about $102 million to prop up the state budget and represents roughly $19 million in annual savings, The Clarion-Ledger reported.

Rachael Ring, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood, said the sweep means that the agency would have to pay some of its bills out of its budget.

“The Legislature’s actions to ‘sweep’ special funds will have catastrophic consequences for payments to victims of violent crime and to police and firefighters injured in the line of duty. Eliminating special funds, while at the same time slashing our budget, is similar to a parent raiding a child’s college savings to pay for a Caribbean vacation while promising to pay for college from an account that was overdrawn in the first place,” Ring said in a statement.

Several other agencies remain unsure what the bill means for their bottom lines.

Dr. Currier seated

Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer

“There weren’t a lot of questions asked of the agencies about what effects this would have so there may be unintended consequences,” said Dr. Mary Currier, who oversees the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH).

Currier notes that her agency is among the first to respond in cases of natural disaster. After one tornado in Louisville last year, MSDH set up freestanding emergency rooms, moved nursing home patients to safety and helped get local restaurants back up and running.

In all, Currier estimates the health department provided $1.2 million in services, partly reimbursable by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. However, if Bryant signs the transparency bill, the health department would not be able to recoup those expenses, she said.

Lee Smithson, MEMA’s executive director struck a chord similar to Dr. Currier, telling Mississippi Today recently: “My concern is interagency fee was never discussed by neither the House or Senate. On Saturday, (during conference weekend) there was never any real discussion until the committee went into closed door conference.

“If the discussion happened earlier, I could’ve come to them in February to come up with a number in advance to show them how much in interagency fees we collected and paid.”

Marc Rolph, a spokesman for the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said the medical school is also not sure how the bill’s stipulations will be implemented.

“It is our understanding that the Institutions of Higher Learning and its member universities have an exception under the bill, but how that will work, especially in regards to state agencies we commonly work with, is also not clear,” Rolph said.

Clarke did not immediately return a message left on his business phone. Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said the governor’s office, agency heads and legislative leaders are developing a plan to implement the changes sought by the bill.

“While it will take effort to change the status quo, the Lieutenant Governor believes bringing more transparency and more scrutiny to spending of taxpayer dollars is well worth the work,” Hipp said.

Contributing: Gabriel Austin