Legislative leaders’ budget plan leaves “flexibility” for new Legislature

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The 14 members who comprise the powerful Legislative Budget Committee left many major issues for the new Legislature to decide in their budget proposal released Wednesday.

The Budget Committee’s recommendation is traditionally viewed as a roadmap for the full Legislature when it convenes in January. The recommendation released Wednesday would appropriate $6.27 billion in state-support funds – $93.7 million or 1.5 percent less than was appropriated during the 2019 session for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. But the Budget Committee leaves $1.29 billion in various reserves. Most of those reserves are set aside for budget emergencies or are originally intended for specific purposes, though, at least $105 million are general funds that are unencumbered and are free to be appropriated during the 2020 session without the Legislature having to change any law.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton is expected to be elected to his third term with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who will be sworn in as governor in early January.

“We want to give both the Senate and House maximum flexibility going into the 2020 session. And that is exactly what we did,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who for the past eight years has co-chaired the Budget Committee with House Speaker Philip Gunn. Reeves is now the governor-elect and at some point in January most likely will outline his own legislative and budget priorities.

Gunn, poised to be elected to his third term as speaker, and Delbert Hosemann, as the incoming lieutenant governor, will alternate yearly as chairs of the committee. Hosemann and Gunn also will appoint the new members of the committee early in the 2020 session, which begins Jan 7.

On Wednesday, when asked about the possibility of a pay raise for teachers during the upcoming session, Gunn said, “Absolutely, (that is) always a possibility.”

Various politicians, including Reeves and Hosemann, promised a pay raise for teachers during the 2020 session. Some, including Hosemann, also have talked about the possibility of an overall pay raise for state workers.

On Wednesday Gunn also cited other needs, such as more funds for infrastructure and mental health.

“I could go down a long list of things,” he said.

Reeves pointed out the budget proposal is based on a conservative revenue estimate, even though, state revenue collections are up 6.3 percent ($135.5 million) through the first five months of the current fiscal year. The fact that the first session of a new four-year term can be constitutionally longer – 125 days opposed to 90 days – gives legislators time to garner a clearer view of the state’s revenue picture, perhaps increasing the official estimate, thus giving them more money to appropriate.

The budget recommendation provides $2.3 billion (a 3.5 percent increase) for the perennially underfunded Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides state support for local school districts. The recommendation still leaves MAEP more than $200 million short of full funding. It appears that general education, which includes the Department of Education and various programs administered for local school districts, would receive the biggest cut under the proposal – $171.7 million or 27.3 percent. But that number is misleading, according to Pete Smith, a spokesman for the Department. In reality, in the 2019 session, legislators placed money for a teacher pay raise in the general education budget. This year those funds will be shifted to the MAEP budget.

The Budget Committee did recommend $18.4 million to fully fund the annual $1,500 teacher pay raise passed during the 2019 session, but not fully funded because of miscalculations by the Department of Education.

The recommended funding level for many other major agencies was less than for the current fiscal year. Cuts were recommended for Medicaid, higher education, mental health and Child Protection Services.

Most recommended cuts were less than 5 percent except for Child Protection Services which was 8.6 percent. And most likely, based on available revenue, all of those agencies will be funded at a level higher than proposed by the Budget Committee.