Legislative rule limits lawmakers’ ability to boost spending for underfunded agencies

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Lawmakers in the Mississippi House chambers at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, January 14, 2020.

If history repeats itself, it is likely that legislators will vote in the coming days to limit their ability to have input in perhaps their most important function – funding state government.

The state currently boasts more than $1 billion in reserve funds – money in the so-called rainy day fund and in other funds – yet, the average rank-and-file legislator under rules in place for the past eight years cannot offer an amendment to spend that money.

Members cannot offer an amendment to take any of those funds to add more money, for instance, to the budget for the troubled Department of Corrections or to add more funds for efforts to deal with the state’s beleaguered foster care system.

A rule adopted by Republicans in 2012 when they took control of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature for the first time since the 1800s requires a member when trying to boost spending for one agency to specify from which agency he or she is taking the money. The rule makes it difficult to add additional money to a budget bill because legislators do not want to take funds from one underfunded agency to boost spending for another.

Bobby Harrison

In Mississippi, some would argue most state agencies, ranging from the prisons, to public health to education, are underfunded.

Senate Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said he supports the rule because it ensures that members don’t irresponsibly budget money the state does not have.

“The revenue pie is only so big,” Hopson said. “Obviously, if you add money to one agency you have to find somewhere to pull money from. So, it would have to come from an agency.”

But that is not always the case.

According to the staff of the Legislative Budget Committee, reserve funds total $1.3 billion, including about $675 million in rainy day funds. Now all of that money would not be available to spend for various reasons, and perhaps, it is not wise to spend rainy day funds at the current time.

But the question is whether a legislator, who has no say in the appropriations process other than his or her vote on the floor, should have the opportunity to make that proposal for the full chamber to consider?

Rules to govern the House and the Senate are made at the beginning of every four-year term. In the coming weeks, the Legislature will take up the Joint Legislative Rules. When asked whether there was any momentum to change the rules to give rank-and-file members more leeway in amending budgets, House Pro-Tem Jason White, R-West, said he had not heard of any.

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, said he believes the rule is unfair.

Clark said he does not believe he will have the votes to alter the rule, but “still might consider offering an amendment to change it if for no other reason than to bring attention to the fact it takes power away from members of this body.”

When the rule was adopted, legislative leaders said they wanted to prevent members from offering amendments for more spending on education, for instance, when the money was not available, thus forcing the leadership to lobby members to vote against more education spending. To be precise, the leadership did not want roll call votes showing them opposed to education spending.

But Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said there had not been efforts by legislators in past years to offer irresponsible amendments.

“It is ludicrous,” Bryan said. “What we have done is say money is squirreled away here and we should spend some of it for education or whatever. We would identify it as being in the blue fund, the purple fund or the contingency fund or whatever fund and say it is available. You did not have in the Senate people offering amendments to try to score political points. If that was the case, then we could talk about addressing that.”

It is true that there are various ways to spend more money without reducing funds for another agency.

For instance, there is a chance that late in the session, as often happens, that legislative leaders will meet to raise the revenue estimate if tax collections are strong. Raising the revenue estimate will give legislators additional money to spend on needs for the upcoming fiscal year, starting July 1. Yet, only a handful of legislators in the leadership will have any say in how that additional revenue is spent.

Clark said he worried about changing the rules eight years ago because “there were so few people left with institutional memory from the 1980s when (then speaker C.B.) Buddie Newman had almost absolute control.”

Some argue that absolute control is returning.