As everyone in the Capitol awaited negotiators to strike a grand deal on the Medicaid budget, several other budget bills were approved, most with little debate.
And a few bills were subject to moderate scrutiny and, in some cases, rancor.
One of the testiest exchanges in both chambers was over the budget for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, which operates under the umbrella of a state agency called Educational Television Authority.
Early budget numbers called for a slight increase in the budget for MPB, which produces television and radio programming, but some members zeroed in on a provision that would eliminate state funding by 2024.
Budget writers said the provision was designed to encourage MPB to increase its efforts to raise money through it’s private foundation and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a federal agency.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, tried unsuccessfully to send the report back to committee for more work, noting that the Legislature now provides roughly 60 percent of MPB’s funding.
“If you support language, you are saying you want to shut down Mississippi Public Broadcasting,” Blount told his colleagues.
Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, presented the compromise agreement and said that MPB would have six years before state funding is pulled and it was possible that a future Legislature might remove the provision.
“I think it’s time we get aggressive about private funding,” Tollison said.
By Monday evening, lawmakers were putting the final touches on the budget and making final calculations. Here’s how things were looking:
Colleges and Universities
Among the key moves was the Legislature authorizing about $107 million in new bonds for the state’s universities and community colleges for next year.
During debate late on Sunday, Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said Delta State University was the only state school to receive less than the legislative budget office recommended.
“Delta state did not request this nor did the IHL board,” Dearing told Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane.
Fillangane said he did not know why the school received less money, but he assured Dearing that “there’s nothing nefarious going on with Delta State.”
Colleges and universities will receive a total of about $84 million next year, and about $167 million over the next two years. The state’s community and junior colleges will receive about $25 million next year.
The approximate IHL breakdown for the next two years is as follows:
• Alcorn State University: $14 million, including $1.5 million for emergency repairs to water and sewer infrastructure.
• Delta State University: $11 million, including several million for campus roof repairs.
• Jackson State University: $15 million, including $8.5 million for renovation of Stewart Hall.
• Mississippi State University: $30 million, including $20 million for a new kinesiology building.
• Mississippi University for Women: $12 million, including $6.6 million for a new culinary arts building.
• Mississippi Valley State University: $12 million, including $6 million for the Charles Lackey Center renovation.
• University of Mississippi: $20 million, including the final $12 million for the new STEM building.
• University of Mississippi Medical Center: About $24 million, all of which will go to Children’s of Mississippi.
• University of Southern Mississippi: About $23 million, including $7 million for campus facility repairs.
Lawmakers were still working late Monday on final appropriations for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, but they did pass a bill Monday that could provide additional funding for the state’s roads and bridges if revenues rise above 2 percent of the estimate.
Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, pushed House Bill 354 early this session, which would transfer half of any extra revenue to MDOT. Sixty percent of that money would go to state roads and bridge projects, 25 percent would go to county projects, and 15 percent would go to municipal projects.
Most facets of the nearly $2.5 billion education appropriations bill saw level funding or a slight increase.
Earlier in the session the question of education funding spurred vigorous debate as the Legislature debated the merits of a new formula, but the appropriations conference report passed out of both chambers on Monday with minimal debate.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program — the formula the state uses to determine funding for public schools — saw a $3.1 million increase to about $2.2 billion. The additional MAEP monies will be used to cover increased costs in teachers’ health insurance, lawmakers said. Early childhood programs received $6.5 million, $2.5 million of which came from the Attorney General’s budget.
The Chickasaw Interest program, which provides funding to Native American schools in the state, saw a more than $962,000 increase to $20.5 million. The vocational and technical education division received about $97 million, while the Mississippi School for the Blind and Deaf saw a $1.7 million bump to roughly $11.5 million.
One agency that fared far better than anticipated was the Department of Public Safety, which received a $86.6 million from the state, a $2.1 million increase over last year’s appropriation.
Arguably the biggest winner in this department was the beleaguered Office of the Medical Examiner, which saw its funding almost triple, from $487,000 to $1.2 million a year.
“It’s a home run,” said Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher.
For years, the office has struggled to fill its five medical examiner positions, an issue that Chief Medical Examiner Mark LeVaughn said is due to the low salary and high workload. Mississippi Today’s Larrison Campbell detailed the budget problems plaguing the department last year.
Since January, the department has been operating with only two medical examiners. LeVaughn said if funds didn’t increase soon, it was “not unlikely” that both would leave before the year was over.
“We can’t continue to do good work with this workload,” LeVaughn said. “It’s not sustainable.”
The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends each medical examiner perform no more than 250 autopsies a year. Unless more doctors are hired, LeVaughn said he and the other medical examiner would each likely perform approximately 750 autopsies.
Fisher said he hoped the increase in funds could be used to shore up staffing in the office.
The Bureau of Narcotics received funding level with last year’s, which Director John Dowdy said was a pleasant surprise. The Legislative Budget Office had recommended a nearly $200,000 cut.
Because of the increase, Dowdy said the bureau, which shuttered its Tupelo office last month, is hopeful he it will be able to bring more agents on in Tupelo and another underserved town in the state, Greenwood.
“What we received exceeded my expectations, and I’m very thankful the legislature was as gracious to us as they were,” Dowdy said. “It doesn’t negate the fact that we still have a substantial number of agent vacancies across the state. But it allows us to hire some agents.”
The state crime lab, which is also facing a significant backlog due staffing shortages, also received a small increase in special funds of approximately $450,000, bringing the total departmental appropriation to $9.67 million. But Fisher said this year’s budget allows more flexibility and he was hopeful he would be able to move other Department of Public Safety resources to the crime lab.
“Nobody ever gets everything they want,” Fisher said. “Overall we’re very satisfied.”
During debate, budget writers said the Department of Corrections would get $6 million more than the legislative budget office recommended in part to help defray medical costs at privately run facilities. Budget writers also revealed that the agency is facing an approximately $20 million budget deficit.