Comparing state spending year-to-year proves difficult

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As a final budget for next fiscal year is being finalized this week, lawmakers in both houses have asked the same question of spending chairmen: How much more or less money will each agency receive next year than they did this year?

Budget officials distributed current fiscal year budget numbers for lawmakers to reference while considering whether to approve next fiscal year’s appropriations.

Senate and House leaders on Sunday and Monday answered the question using current fiscal year budget numbers that were updated as of Friday when Gov. Phil Bryant made a fourth round of cuts to offset lower-than-projected revenue. The current fiscal year’s budget reflects about $170 million in mid-year cuts.

This year’s appropriations serve as a reference point and do not necessarily affect how next year’s budget is drawn up, legislative leaders said on Monday.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale

“The bottom line for us, as we’re looking at next year’s budget, is: here’s the pie and how can we spend it,” said Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, the Senate Appropriations chairman. “It is always based on what (the Revenue Estimating Group) tells us what revenue we have.”

Lawmakers usually want to use the previous year’s numbers to weigh their votes on the appropriations bills. Full impact on agencies is best seen stacked up to previous years’ spending numbers.

For example, lawmakers voted last year to appropriate $63,164,231 to the Department of Health for the current fiscal year. But after four rounds of mid-year cuts to the department totaling $3.2 million, the department is projected to receive just $60,012,419 before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

That number could be lowered even again if revenues this fiscal year continue to fall below projections and the governor has to again cut budgets, Clarke said.

Comparing next year’s agency appropriations to updated budget projections, as lawmakers are doing this week, has merit as it allows comparisons to projected spending with the current spending.

Others prefer to compare last year’s appropriations bills with the appropriations bills being approved this week, noting that the appropriations bills represent the intent of the Legislature based on the revenue projections available at the time appropriations are made for each year.

Mississippi Today has compiled a list of last year’s appropriations, made during the 2016 legislative session, compared to the next fiscal year’s budget numbers.

Clarke called last session’s appropriations “the wish list if money came in.” Since revenues have lagged – the state has only met monthly revenue projections twice in the past 18 months – the full appropriations from last year have not been distributed.

Lawmakers build a state budget months in advance based on revenue projections from state economists. That is, by all accounts, inherently difficult.

The Revenue Estimating Group, made up of the Treasurer, the State Economist, the Department of Revenue, the Department of Finance and Administration and the director of the Legislative Budget Office, determines what future revenues will look like.

“The one thing I always say is that the revenue projections are always going to be wrong,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said on Friday.