Capitol police restrain a protester who with others, raised a banner with the names of state inmates who died in August, 2018, during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee Fiscal Year 2020 hearing in Jackson Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.  The small group was escorted out of the hearing.

A handful of protesters unfurled a banner containing the names of the 16 inmates who died in August as Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall made her budget requests Monday to legislative leaders.

Before being removed from the meeting, protesters yelled “people are being murdered” in state prisons and that “MDOC kills.”

Pelicia Hall, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections

While Hall disputed the allegations of the protesters, she did tell the members of the Legislative Budget Committee that conditions in the state’s prisons did jeopardize the health and safety of not only the state’s nearly 20,000 inmates, but also the about 1,000 corrections officers.

Referring to the low pay and conditions of some of the prisons, she said, “It is going to have to be changed. It is going to have to be fixed.”

Hall, speaking publicly for the first time since the unusually high number of prisoner deaths in August, said, “There is nothing sinister about the deaths.” She said two of the deaths were the results of homicides, but most of those who died were in hospitals and had been in poor health.

But Hall did acknowledge that the poor conditions of some of the prisons, such as lack of air conditioning, “exacerbate” the problem for some inmates who come in the system in poor health.

Hall is asking legislators for an increase in the pay of the state’s corrections officers, who currently start at $24,900 annually.

“I shudder to think if I had to run a household” on the salary they make, she said. She also said the majority female corrections officer staff faces dangerous situations on a routine basis. Hall said a corrections officer was stabbed recently when she did not bring contraband into the prison for an inmate.

MDOC is asking for an additional $3.7 million for pay raises for corrections officers, $1.7 million for post release programs and $22.3 million for renovations and repairs to unit 29 – the maximum security unit at Parchman Penitentiary.

Hall said unit 29 was in such bad shape that inmates were smuggling items and storing them in the decaying cinder block walls.

The 14 member Legislative Budget Committee spent Monday hearing budget requests from multiple agencies. In December, the Budget Committee will release a budget proposal that will in essence serve as a roadmap for the full Legislature when it convenes in January to prepare a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The Budget Committee opted to spend only one day this year hearing requests from state agencies. Those the Committee heard from included kindergarten through 12th grade education, Medicaid, Public Safety and a few others. Most agencies will simply submit a written budget request to the staff of the Legislative Budget Committee.

Various agencies, ranging from Public Safety to Child Protection Services requested pay increases for staff members.

In total the agencies requested $764 million more than what was appropriated by the Legislature in the 2018 session for the budget year that started this past July 1.

The total state-support budget is about $6 billion.

State Superintendent Carey Wright

For the Department of Education, State Superintendent Carey Wright presented lawmakers with Mississippi’s recent academic gains, citing improvements in kindergarten test scores and third grade reading.

For fiscal year 2020, the department is requesting additional funding in the state’s early learning collaboratives which provides funding to local communities to establish and support quality early childhood education and development services. Her department also requested funds for the expansion of the Literacy Based Promotion Act, and full funding of the public school funding formula.

Specifically, the department is requesting:

• Full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), $2.4 billion total. Last fiscal year the program was underfunded by more than $200 million.

• A $6 million increase from fiscal year 2019 for early childhood education programs, $10 million in total. Wright has advocated for this frequently, and on Monday told lawmakers “I can tell you it is much cheaper to educate a young child than it is to remediate middle school and high school students who have fallen behind.”

• $1 million for additional professional development for teachers and administrators

• $16 million to expand the Literacy Based Promotion Act by hiring more literacy coaches and providing more professional development (This would be a $1.1 million increase from fiscal year 2019)

• $250,000 for the Achievement School District, which is not yet operational – when it does eventually launch, the state-run entity will take over underperforming public school districts and place them under state leadership to improve academic achievement.

New Division of Medicaid executive director Drew Snyder announced the agency’s lowest deficit request in over half a decade – zero dollars. In his presentation Snyder revealed a flair for the dramatic, unfurling a ream of paper and reading out a list of cost-containment measures from it, as several lawmakers in the room chuckled.

According to Snyder, those measures included cutting contracts, leaving open jobs unfilled and even cancelling a long-running radio spot. The end result, he said, was that the projected 2019 deficit was down from $40 million to just $5 million.

“We’ve believed firmly for years that there were things that could be done, and I think we were proved right,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said.

The budget request for FY 2020 was also down a bit, from $984 million to $954 million. Snyder said the biggest factor in that drop was that enrollment had declined 4 percent in the last year.

“Rest assured our philosophy is if you’re eligible for Medicaid you should have Medicaid. But we have seen a bit of a drop and that has helped the budget situation,” Snyder said.

Six months after his agency rankled lawmakers by announcing a nearly $50 million budget shortfall for 2018, Child Protection Services head Jess Dickinson assured them that he wouldn’t need additional funding for current fiscal year 2019. But he did say that the agency would need considerably more for 2020, which starts July 1. The reason, he said, had to do with ongoing compliance with the federal Olivia Y lawsuit. In order to comply, the agency needs more caseworkers immediately, and it also needs to upgrade its aging computer system by June of 2021.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

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.