Mississippi lawmakers start picking through budget requests

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asks a question of an agency head during their budget request presentation before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee hearing in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mississippi government agencies are seeking about $800 million more for the coming year — roughly a 13 percent increase in a $6 billion budget. But legislators warn that with slow economic growth, there won't be enough new tax revenue to cover all the requests.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Thursday held the first of two days of hearings as they start working on a spending plan for the year that begins July 1.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, a Republican from Meridian, said it's not unusual for agencies to request more money than will be available. He said the wish lists will have to be whittled to the most pressing needs.

"We've got to pick and choose somewhere," Snowden told Andrea Mayfield, director of the community colleges.

Later, when the universities presented their requests, Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum acknowledged that budget writers face difficult challenges. However, he and other education leaders told lawmakers that education is a smart investment to improve the state's economy.

"I don't want to see Mississippi left behind as the rest of the world moves forward," Keenum said.

State economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers that Mississippi has had "lackluster" economic performance since the Great Recession, and pay levels have not grown significantly.

"A lot of the jobs that we have created over the past few years have been either part-time or low-paying," Webb said.

He said he expects continued slow growth, partly because Mississippi has a large number of people of working age who don't have jobs.

The Department of Revenue is requesting a slight budget increase so it can hire auditors. Commissioner Herb Frierson said it's an effort to increase tax collections. He also said the department is having trouble retaining experienced certified public accountants because they can make money working for private companies or even in some other parts of state government.

"We're going to have some real good conversations about our professional people and their pay," Frierson said.

Jess Dickinson, who stepped down as a state Supreme Court justice to lead the Department of Child Protective Services starting this week, said his agency wants to hire more workers and needs more office space.

The Department of Public Safety is requesting money to fill job vacancies at the state Crime Lab, where director Sam Howell said the three medical examiners are doing about 1,500 autopsies a year. At an average of 500 autopsies per medical examiner, that is twice the recommended rate of no more than 250 per examiner per year, he said.

John Dowdy, director of the Bureau of Narcotics, said that Mississippi, like other states, is seeing an epidemic of opioid abuse. He said at least 150 people have died of drug overdoses in Mississippi this year. Ten of those overdose deaths happened last week alone.

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