Meridian Star

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December 3, 2013

Top Miss. lawmakers release FY15 budget proposal

JACKSON, Miss. — Top Mississippi lawmakers on Tuesday released their state budget proposal for the coming year, and their plan is different from Gov. Phil Bryant's in several ways.

Differences are normal at this point in the lengthy budget-writing process, which began when agencies submitted their requests in August. If legislators stay on schedule, they should adopt a final spending plan by early April. Fiscal 2015 begins July 1.

"I think all the taxpayers can be pleased," House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said in praising the proposal that he and the other 13 members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee are making.

The Legislative Budget Committee proposes $5.9 billion in state spending. Bryant's plan, released Nov. 13, proposes $6.1 billion.

During this stage of budget writing, the governor has more flexibility to make assumptions about how much money the state will collect for such things as lawsuit settlements. Lawmakers are supposed to limit themselves to sources of money that are more firmly guaranteed.

Bryant's budget includes an assumption that Mississippi will collect an additional $35 million by allowing the Department of Revenue to hire more auditors. The legislators' budget does not include this $35 million.

One of the key differences in the two budget proposals is in public safety — a topic Bryant said will be a priority. The governor proposes $6.9 million to train a new group of Highway Patrol troopers, while legislators propose no money for trooper training. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said some lawmakers believe the Department of Public Safety spends too little on things troopers need, like new vehicles to replace high-mileage ones.

"The moneys do not seem to be getting to the troopers on the road," Reeves said Tuesday.

Both budgets propose putting money into cash reserves: Legislators would set aside $548 million, while Bryant would set aside $171 million.

The governor and the Legislative Budget Committee both propose putting more money into community colleges and universities.

At this point, the governor and the Legislative Budget Committee propose a few million more dollars for specific education programs, such as intensive literacy training in early elementary school. However, neither the legislative plan nor the governor's plan would fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which is the largest chunk of money for elementary and secondary schools.

MAEP is a complex funding formula designed to ensure each district receives enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. It was put into law in 1997 but has been fully funded only twice, during election years. The formula was designed to help Mississippi avoid an equity-funding lawsuit after such suits were filed in other states to challenge the differences between wealthier and poorer districts.

Nancy Loome, who lobbies for public school funding as head of the Parents Campaign, criticized budget proposals from the governor and legislative leaders.

"Apparently, they just are not committed to providing our children a good education," Loome said Tuesday. "The revenue is there. They've increased state funding overall in their budget recommendations, but they don't see fit to even adequately fund public schools. That is very disappointing."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said it's his goal to put more money into K-12 schools in the final budget.


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