Based on the budget passed hurriedly and with barely any debate in late March during the final days of the 2023 session, legislators apparently were saying all of the state’s problems had been solved.
They were saying:
- Education — pre-kindergarten through graduate school — is funded at an adequate level.
- All state employees are paid at an acceptable rate.
- The state Crime Lab is adequately staffed and can respond to the needs of local court jurisdictions and law enforcement in a timely manner to prosecute those accused of committing crimes.
- Crime, not only the much ballyhooed problems in Jackson, but throughout the state is being solved.
- Health care needs for Mississippians — young children as well as senior citizens — are being met.
- The economy is thriving.
Empirical evidence does not bear out those statements. Compared to other states, Mississippi continues to have the highest infant mortality rate, shortest life expectancy, one of the lowest work force participation rates (a fewer percentage of eligible people working) and highest homicide rate.
Oh by the way, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides for the basic needs of local schools, was underfunded — again — this time $150 million or more depending on how the shell game the Legislature played in 2023 with education funding is interpreted.
Despite all these problems, legislators left money on the table — probably close to $1 billion. That is right — the Legislature had another $1 billion to address the state’s needs.
Never in the history of the state has that much available revenue been left knowingly unspent.
Back in November, the 14 members of the Legislative Budget Committee, which includes Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Phillip Gunn, met with Gov. Tate Reeves to adopt an official revenue estimate for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1.
The governor and the committee agreed on an estimate of $7.52 billion based on the recommendations of economists and other financial experts. After 2% of that amount was set aside to provide a safeguard if revenue collections do not meet the estimate, the Legislature had $7.37 billion in general funds to budget on those needs during the 2023 session.
Yet, the 2023 Legislature appropriated $6.55 billion of those funds, leaving $710.3 million unspent. And it is important to note that all of the state’s reserve funds are filled to their statutory limit.
But wait, there is more.
Normally, legislative leaders on the Budget Committee would have met again near the end of the session to hear input from the state’s financial experts on whether they should revise the revenue estimate, meaning increasing or decreasing the amount of money available to spend in the 2023 session for the upcoming fiscal year.
Legislative leaders normally meet to consider revisions because obviously more information about upcoming revenue trends is available months later at the end of the session than in November weeks before the session begins.
In the past 25 years, the number of times legislative leaders have not met at the end of the session to revise the revenue estimate could be counted on one hand.
Yet, this year, even as collections for the current fiscal year through March are a whopping $601.9 million above the estimate, legislative leaders did not meet.
The responsibility for calling that meeting rested with Speaker Gunn. The lieutenant governor and speaker alternate each year chairing the Budget Committee.
Gunn, who is not seeking re-election, apparently did not want to preside over a final session where such a large increase in state spending occurred, thus, he balked on calling the traditional revenue revision meeting.
If that meeting had been called, it is safe to assume that financial experts would have, based on current collections, recommended increasing the revenue estimate by another $200 million or more. If that revision had occurred, legislators would have left $1 billion or more on the table based on the budget they passed.
That would have been enough money to address some of the needs facing the state, while providing a one-time rebate to Mississippians like many other states have done. Many legislators indicated that they did not want to pass an additional tax cut after the $525 million income tax reduction they passed last year — the largest in Mississippi history. They fear that in future years as revenue collections slow — as they surely will — an additional tax cut could make it difficult to fund state services.
But a one-time rebate instead of enacting a tax cut would not have impacted revenue streams in future years.
The bottom line is that legislators could have done a lot they did not do. But by the budget they passed, they send the message nothing else needs to be done.