December 19, 2011 9:15:00 AM
By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON -- New legislators will write Mississippi's budget for the year that begins July 1 and, after a certain amount of haggling, a new governor will sign it into law.
Members of the House and Senate take office Jan. 3, and Republican Phil Bryant becomes governor Jan. 10. Even before they're inaugurated, they have budget guidance available -- if they want it.
This past week, current members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee released their spending proposal for fiscal 2013, and outgoing Republican Gov. Haley Barbour releases his plan this week.
The new state leaders can follow the proposals or ignore them. Most likely, they'll take bits of advice, then shape the new spending plan to fit their own vision of government.
Based on Barbour's record, it's easy to know some of what he'll recommend. Be cautious. Avoid using "one-time money" that will disappear the following year. Keep several million dollars in reserve for the future. Save money by consolidating administrative functions across traditional boundaries -- have several school districts buy supplies in bulk, for example.
During a farewell address on the Gulf Coast this past week, Barbour told business leaders that writing a state budget is not sexy, but it's important.
Barbour often has said local school districts, collectively, are holding millions of dollars in reserve even as they seek increases in state funding. So far, he hasn't persuaded lawmakers to force the districts to dip deep into their own set-aside money.
Barbour is reviving his push for local districts to spend some of their rainy day funds, and lawmakers can expect to get the same response they've gotten from school administrators in the past. Those with plenty of money in the bank say they've been good managers and it would be unfair to punish their districts by forcing them to deplete their funds. Besides that, they say reserve funds help them juggle their bill-paying throughout each academic year. Districts with little in reserve say they can't spend what they don't have.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee recommends an overall state spending reduction of 2.3 percent for the coming fiscal year. A committee document shows most reductions would be between 1 percent and 15 percent.
The committee recommends level funding -- no increases or decreases -- for elementary and secondary schools and for community colleges, and a 1.9 percent reduction for universities.
The committee suggests level funding for mental health and reductions of 2.8 percent for prisons, 6.9 percent for Medicaid, 15.9 percent for the public safety and 19.6 percent for the Department of Health. One of the biggest recommended cuts is 46.2 percent for the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Budgeting for fiscal 2013 will be difficult because the economy is still recovering from the recession and federal aid is dropping off. Agencies collectively are requesting more money than the state is expected to generate in taxes, fees and other forms of revenue. That means policymakers will say "no" more often than they say "yes."
Only an elite few members serve on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the group that has the most influence over spending decisions. The House speaker and the lieutenant governor take turns as chairman, year to year. The speaker appoints six other House members, and the lieutenant governor appoints six senators.
A big turnover is guaranteed on the Budget Committee. For the past eight years, only Democrats have served on the group from the House. Now, Republicans are taking control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction. Three of the seven Budget Committee members from the Senate are not returning to the Legislature.
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