Election year budget will see a $190 million jump in funding after years of cuts or little growth

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, right, and Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, credit conservative planning as the budget process winds down. 

The funding of state government, which has been on a downward trajectory in recent years, will increase about $190 million or about 3 percent for the upcoming fiscal year.

Legislators concluded the budgeting process for the 2019 session Thursday and early Friday by passing a state-support budget of $6.35 billion with little debate and few questions with the exception of some members trying unsuccessfully to garner additional funds for a teacher pay raise.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said conservative planning in recent years – resulting in cuts – allowed the significant increase in spending for the upcoming fiscal year. Those increases will come as legislators campaign this summer for re-election in November.

“I thought we had a very good budget this year,” Gunn said. “I don’t think any agency suffered cuts, did not suffer major cuts.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said all the tax cuts passed in recent years, which will result in a reduction in state revenue of more than $700 million when fully enacted, have made it difficult to properly fund state government and to provide adequate raises for underpaid state employees.

“We are in the peak of the economic cycle, yet, we don’t have enough money to fix our roads or fund our schools because of all the tax cuts,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said the budget was fiscally conservative, but “we were able to fund most of our priorities.”

However, there was some grumbling in the House over the size of the pay raise for state employees.

The Legislature set aside $12 million for a pay raise for some of the 26,000 state employees. In addition, a little more than $4 million was appropriated for a pay raise for university staff and faculty and little less than $1 million for employees of the 15 community colleges.

Gunn said there will be “a three year look back” in determining the state employees who will receive a 3 percent raise. Employees who had not had a raise in three years would get the full 3 percent while if they had garnered a 2 percent raise in that time, for instance, they would receive a only 1 percent increase.

University and community college employees would be eligible for a 2 percent raise based on the three-year look back process.

The increase in the budget for the upcoming 2020 fiscal year, which  begins July 1, is still considerably less than the $6.5 billion appropriated for fiscal year 2017 before sluggish revenue collections resulted in two years of budget reductions.

One area where concerns were expressed as the leadership passed the budget was over the long lines at the drivers’ licenses bureaus.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said every member of the Senate had received phone calls from disgruntled constituents who had to endure long waits to obtain or renew a license.

Blount said the chaos in the bureaus “weakens people confidence in government when you see such dysfunction.” He said the state’s largest county, Hinds, did not have a fully operational bureau.

Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said $3.2 million was being added to the budget of the Department of Public Safety to address the issue.

“I am hopeful they are going to solve the problem,” Clarke said.

Sizable increases in the budget included about $60 million to shore up the state’s public employee pension program, funds for the state’s health care program and $58 million for the teacher pay raise.

There also were sizable increases of $14.2 million for Medicaid and $15.7 million or 7 percent for Child Protection Services to try to address issues in the state’s foster care system.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of the basics for the operation of local school districts, was underfunded about $250 million, based on preliminary numbers. It has been underfunded more than $2 billion since 2008.

While much of the work on the budget centered around what is known as the state support budget, which is $6.3 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, the entire budget is about $20 billion. That includes federal funds and what are known as special funds, fees and taxes, to fund specific agencies. The so-called state support budget is funded primarily by general taxes such as on retail items and on personal income and is the area where the Legislature has the most discretion in how to appropriate funds.