Many people who experience “conference weekend” at the Mississippi Legislature have the same takeaway: There’s got to be a better way to set a state budget. Some phrase it in more colorful or profane language.
It’s a harried, hurried couple of days in which a handful of selected negotiators haggle out a multi-billion dollar budget. Most members of the 174-member Legislature twiddle their thumbs for hours on end, then are hastily called into session to pass dozens of budget bills under deadline, with most not knowing exactly what’s in the bills on which they are voting.
Some lawmakers have asked in vain for more information — such as spreadsheets — before voting. Often, such info is not available because of the last-minute nature of Mississippi budget setting. Public transparency? It goes right out the window in this process.
Politicos over the years have likened it to a game of whack-a-mole, lemmings following each other off a cliff, college students scrambling on a term paper after procrastinating and a goat rodeo. Others have been less flattering.
In this frenzied affair, mistakes get made. Sometimes, big ones. Like when lawmakers accidentally spent $57 million more than they had because of a “staff error” in 2016. Or when 10,000 teachers (and $18.5 million) got left out of a teacher pay raise because of a “clerical error” in 2019. Other times, things get sneaked into spending bills that would otherwise never pass muster if more legislators or the public knew they were in there.
One might assume that this budgeting scramble plays a role in lawmakers and budget staff not uncovering some of the multi-million dollar malfeasance, embezzlement and bribery scandals that have rocked the state in recent years. More time and eyes spent on agency budgets and spending certainly couldn’t hurt.
At times lawmakers have vowed to change the process, provide more deliberation on budgeting. This was the case years ago during a push for “performance-based” budgeting. Lawmakers vowed to more deeply analyze what bang taxpayers are getting for their bucks with state agency spending and programs. But these efforts fizzled out. Otherwise, there appears to be very little long-range planning in the Legislature’s budget work.
Instead, Mississippi’s state government budgeting appears to have become even more hurried and the power over the purse strings more concentrated among fewer top lawmakers. And some policy changes have provided rank-and-file lawmakers less input and scrutiny of budgets.
For instance, the House and Senate Joint Legislative Budget Committee holds fall budget hearings, ostensibly for state agencies to make budget requests and justify their spending, and for lawmakers to ask questions. A couple of decades ago, these hearings — open to the public and media — lasted about a month and provided fairly in-depth insight. But over time, the hearings became shorter and more proforma. In recent years, the hearings have become a one-day affair with only a handful of agencies showing up and giving quick-hit superficial overviews.
Some lawmakers have pushed, usually to little avail, for policy and structure changes to address these issues. Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, has for years filed such bills. One would have limited general legislative sessions — where lawmakers offer non-budget or general bills — to every other year. This would help weed out superfluous legislation and allow more vetting and contemplation of state spending and major issues.
Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, has recently suggested a programmed pause in budgeting. Once budget conference reports, or agreements between House and Senate negotiators, are filed, Polk suggested, instead of rushing a vote on them, the Legislature could recess for a week or two to allow all lawmakers — and even the public — time to scrutinize the proposals.
“It’s an idea,” Polk said. “That way, no one could say they didn’t have a chance to read them.”
In some states, major budget decisions are subject to more public scrutiny — even public hearings — before being passed into law. In Arizona, for instance, the public can speak on the budget at joint House and Senate appropriations hearings. A joint committee in Wisconsin travels the state holding town hall meetings for citizen input on state spending.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, serving his first term in that position, said, “I do not like conference weekend.”
Hosemann said he had planned this year to move up budget negotiations and not have a big scramble at the end. But he said that because of a standoff over tax cuts, the House “refused to enter into negotiations until a tax cut was passed.”
This resulted in negotiations being even later and more hectic than usual, in part because lawmakers not only had to set a $7 billion state budget, but decide how to spend $1.8 billion in federal pandemic stimulus from Congress.
“It is my goal that we do not go through that process, at that speed, again,” Hosemann said. “… Certainly, we are open to look at ways to make it better, more positive. We need to do it over a longer period of time, and more eyes on things would always be better.”