State budget woes providing difficult impasse as budget season nears

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mississippi’s college football season isn’t the only thing that gets underway in earnest in September each year.

September also marks the beginning of the Mississippi Legislature’s formal budget preparation process, which starts months before the beginning of the 2017 regular session in January with legislative budget hearings. That process allows the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the Legislative Budget Office to gather facts and evidence necessary to produce a coherent state budget once the Legislature actually goes into formal session.

That process brings two realities into being in the halls of state government. State agencies use the budget hearing process to justify their budget requests through detailed reports, charts, graphs and other tangible evidence. They build the case for agency funding by painting vivid portraits of those served by their agencies and the perceived consequences if those services are not enhanced and grown — and even more vivid portraits if the services are curtailed or eliminated.

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Perhaps the best way to begin a discussion of the next state budget the Legislature has to build is to put it this way — look at everything problematic with the current state budget and then make it worse. But that’s still missing the point to a degree. Maybe an easier way to understand it is to look back to the future

Drop back and look at 2010. Even with federal stimulus funds, Mississippi’s FY 2010 budget was cut an average 9.5 percent. The FY 2011 budget was crafted to be at a level that averaged 13.5 percent below 2010 appropriations.

As the 2009 federal stimulus funds expired, the FY 2012 budget that lawmakers confronted was originally projected to be from 20 percent to 23 percent below the 2010 appropriations.

Mississippi fired or furloughed state employees under the FY 2010 and FY 2011 budgets.

Former Gov. Haley Barbour cut spending five times in 2010 in order to comply with the state’s constitutional mandate to balance the budget. Mississippi endured a $363 million budget deficit for FY 2009 and a $480 million budget deficit for FY 2010, with an estimated revenue shortfall of $544 million for FY 2011. It was a mess.

Fast forward to the present day. Legislators start the budget process months after Gov. Phil Bryant has to enact two budget cuts and dip into the state’s “rainy day” fund three times in the previous fiscal year ended June 30.

A legislative overestimation of available revenue of some $56 million that was appropriated for the fiscal year that began July 1 coupled with a dispute over $80 million in special funds revenue that legislators intended to spend in the general fund means lawmakers started the current fiscal year some $130 million in the hole.

Then came revenue collection numbers for the first month of the new fiscal year —  July    that show sluggish state revenues down $11.5 million or 3.9 percent year over year. That’s all predicate for the beginning of the budget hearing process.

Another hard reality facing lawmakers is the ongoing call by the Mississippi Economic Council and others to meet some $375 million in unaddressed state infrastructure maintenance and expansion needs. The push in favor of the state’s roads and bridges had broad-based support and no real legislative opposition save the questions of how it’s funded and who pays.

Revenue shortfalls, the $56 million estimating error and the infrastructure question create a $500 million legislative hurdle — and that’s before any other agencies or functions of state government even get to the budget hearing table.

Looking back to 2010 provides perspective. Things aren’t quite that bad. But anyone who doesn’t see a very difficult state budget year ahead isn’t paying attention.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at