Legislative leaders conducting Fiscal Year 2019 budget hearings for state agencies signaled little willingness for increased state spending as hearings got underway on Thursday.
“We work for the taxpayers, not the bureaucracy that has been created over the past 200 years,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said to kick off the hearings that continue today. “And if we will focus our efforts on that, we will make the best decisions for our constituents.”
Legislative leaders – who have promoted efficient spending while cutting most agency budgets the past two fiscal years – listened intently to seven agency heads present what they labeled basic needs, not desires: funding salaries for new highway patrol troopers, K-12 literacy coaches, medical examiners, DNA technicians and workforce development teachers.
But during periods of lawmaker questioning for all seven agencies that met Thursday, legislators fell back, in some fashion, to the lack of total funds available for increased state spending. Left unsaid was the impact of a $415 million tax cut over 10 years passed in 2016 and beginning to take effect this fiscal year. Tax revenue provides the bulk of the money available to run state government agencies.
State Economist Darrin Webb began the Fiscal Year 2019 budget process by discussing the state of Mississippi’s general economy. While Webb warned of no real declines in revenue collections, state GDP or unemployment rates, he painted a picture of increases in those areas for Mississippi that will be slower than all neighboring states and the national average.
On Friday, Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn will formally announce the first Fiscal Year 2019 revenue estimate, which gives lawmakers their first glimpse at a bottom-line spending total. The current fiscal year’s budget was set right at $6 billion.
State agency and department heads have already submitted 2019 budget requests that total $800 million more than this year’s budget – meaning lawmakers will have until early April to decide which agency needs to fulfill or cut.
On Thursday, two agencies – Department of Revenue, which collects the state’s taxes, and the Department of Treasury, which pays the state’s debts – hinted at the possibility that they might not have enough in the bank to pay their own agency bills the current fiscal year. Both agencies asked for an increase in funding for next year.
• Department of Revenue asked for a 2019 budget increase of $4.2 million. Stated needs included hiring additional revenue auditors, who investigate for fraudulent tax filings.
• Child Protection Services asked for a $15.2 million general fund budget increase. Stated needs included salaries for additional social workers and supervisors, and the development of a comprehensive information system to track foster child cases and alleged abuse and neglect cases — both of which are necessary to comply with a federal court settlement.
• Department of Education asked for about $23 million in increases for three of their five general fund budget items, including a fully funded Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which has long been shortchanged by the Legislature. Stated needs included salaries for literacy coaches, seed funding to pay for superintendent of the Achievement School District, and more technology in the classroom.
• Department of Public Safety asked for a $20.4 million general fund increase. Stated needs included salaries for five more medical examiners, salaries for 60 new highway patrol officers who have recently graduated from trooper school, a new building for Troop G in Starkville, and new Bureau of Narcotics vehicles.
• Community Colleges asked for $78.1 million general fund increase. Stated needs included salary increases for teachers who haven’t received raises since 2008, additional support for workforce training programs, and $10.7 million for MI-BEST Career Pathways, formerly called Dropout Recovery Initiative.
• Institutes of Higher Learning asked for a $6.7 million general fund decrease. IHL leaders focused on the positives of the university systems but discussed the need to address Ayers settlement funding moving forward. The Ayers case was resolved when the state agreed to provide a fund that would add money to support the state’s historically black colleges and universities. However, funds will be depleted in a few years and advocates for those institutions argue that additional funding is still needed.
• Department of Information Technologies asked for a $9.9 million general fund increase. Stated needs included additional data processing servers and other equipment.
• The Treasurer’s Office was on the schedule for Thursday, but no representative attended the meeting due to a scheduling conflict. Instead, the office sent a memo to lawmakers chronicling their stated needs, which includes a $51.9 million general fund increase for debt services.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that the Department of Child Protection Services requested additional funding for office space. The department told the legislative budget committee it would like to move into a single office space, but the move would not cost the state any additional moneys.