Bills introduced in the House and Senate this week would give the governor the reins of two of the biggest agencies in the state, a move some Democrats say could bring unnecessary political influence to agency business.

The Mississippi Health Agency Reorganization Act of 2017 would place the Departments of Health and Mental Health as well as Rehabilitation Services under the policy direction of Gov. Phil Bryant. This would also allow the governor to replace the executive director of each of these departments with his own appointees.

Supporters of the bills say bringing all three agencies together under the governor would allow them to share resources, specifically administrative staff. The final provision of the bills exempts employees in those departments from the regulations of the state Personnel Board, potentially making these positions easier to eliminate.

“It’s one of those cost-cutting deals,” said Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “I can’t predict if it’ll come to fruition or not, but it’s an attempt to look at ways to maybe share services. It’s not trying to throw anybody out. We’re trying to ask other boards and commissions to look at sharing services, too.”

Long a rallying cry of Republicans at the Capitol, trimming the state budget has taken on a new urgency this legislative session as revenues continue to fall behind initial projections. In his State of the State address Tuesday night, Bryant indicated that bills combining parts of state agencies may be on his agenda.

“Consolidation among agencies, boards and commissions – many of which serve identical functions and duplicate services – may not save a significant amount of money immediately; but would, over time, generate the kind of cost savings that could strengthen a core function of government, like education or public safety,” Bryant said Tuesday.

Representatives from the Departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitation Services declined to say whether they were in favor of the two bills, House Bill 886 and Senate Bill 2567.

“We are aware of 886, and we are reviewing it. And we will certainly review it with our board,” said Liz Sharlot, communications officer for the Department of Health.

Representatives from the Department of Mental Health also said they are reviewing the proposed legislation.

“We have seen HB 886 and are reviewing it as we do with much of the legislation introduced each year to assess its potential impact on the agency. The Department of Mental Health’s mission is … making a difference in the lives of Mississippians with a mental illness, substance use disorder and/or intellectual and developmental disability one person at a time, and our focus is on that mission,” said Adam Moore, director of communications at the Department of Mental Health.

Placing state agencies under the governor’s supervision is not new. Other major agencies such as Medicaid and Department of Human Services have traditionally been under the governor’s control.

But Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said that giving the governor oversight of two of the “most vital” state agencies could pose political conflicts.

“The purpose of the agencies being run by boards is to minimize political influence, and by and large we’ve struck a good balance between agencies that are directly accountable to the governor and agencies that are answerable to boards,” Blount said. “For the agencies that are run by boards, the purpose of boards is to have these vital state agencies directly removed from state politics.”

Under the two bills, the advisory boards of all three agencies would remain intact, but they, too, would be overseen by the governor.

In recent years, the relationship between legislators and the Departments of Health and Mental Health has been laced with tension, as the agency heads have repeatedly sought funding for services while Republican leaders have questioned how many of these services are necessary.

Two rounds of mid-year budget cuts and fallout over last year’s Senate Bill 2362, which swept some special funds into the state’s general fund, have increased the protests from many agencies, including Health and Mental Health. State leaders, however, have argued that these cuts have helped streamline a bloated budget.

The Departments of Health and Mental Health command $62 million and $241 million of the state budget, respectively, for fiscal year 2017. Each is also looking at a significant budget cut for fiscal year 2018, based on recommendations from the Legislative Budget Office. In the Department of Health, the cut would be $5.1 million or 8.24 percent. In mental health, the proposed $7.9 million cut is 3.25 percent of its 2017 budget.

Read said any disagreements with the Departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitation had no bearing on which agencies were selected for potential oversight by the governor.

“The question is, can they use each other’s administrative staffs, can they share space?” Read said.

Rehab services is the smallest of these agencies, with an annual budget of $26.8 million for 2017, and it frequently flies under the radar when legislators talk about budget areas that could be cut. For fiscal year 2018, their proposed cut would be just under a million dollars.

Chris Howard, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services Credit: MDRS

During an appropriations hearing last week, Chris Howard, executive director of the department, argued that because his agency’s goal is finding employment for disabled Mississippians, Rehab Services actually brings in more money than it spends.

“Our return on investment is 2.6 – that means for every dollar you appropriate us in state funding, our return is 2.6 times that. Our programs more than pay for themselves,” Howard said.

Howard also declined to say whether his agency would support the legislation.

“We have always made decisions and taken positions based on the best interests of the people we serve. We are in the process of evaluating this legislation and what it may mean for persons with disabilities in our state. We look forward to working with our Legislature as the session unfolds,” Howard said in a statement.

Blount is not convinced the move would save money.

“I don’t know that it makes them more efficient or not. I would want to see some evidence and some independent analysis and data to show that it may exist,” Blount said.

“But what we learned last year with SB 2362 is anytime you attempt to undertake a major restructuring of state government, it needs to be done in a careful, deliberate manner with lots of public input on the front end.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.