November 6, 2013 9:39:11 AM
JACKSON -- Top lawmakers on Tuesday increased the estimate of how much money Mississippi can spend on state government programs this budget year and next.
Members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee voted to increase the revenue estimate from just under $5.1 billion to just over $5.2 billion for fiscal 2014, which ends June 30.
They also set an estimate of nearly $5.4 billion for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.
Lawmakers said the new numbers reflect experts' predictions that the economy will continue growing at a modest pace.
"I think we're going to have a very solid budget," said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.
With the new estimates, the revenue growth from last year to this year will be 2 percent, and the growth from this year to next will be another 2.7 percent. That compares to 5.1 percent growth from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2013.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant was out of state Tuesday, but was put on a speaker phone to participate in the Budget Committee meeting. He said he agrees with the new estimates.
State economist Darrin Webb told the budget writers that he expects Mississippi this year to have its strongest rate of job growth since 1999. However, he said rather than indicating current economic strength, that shows how weak the economy has been for more than a decade.
With the increase of the revenue estimate for the current budget year, lawmakers will have options when they meet from early January through early April. They could put millions of dollars into the state's cash reserves, or they could allocate more money for programs that are expected to be short on money.
The Department of Corrections, for example, started the current budget year with $337.9 million, and Commissioner Chris Epps is seeking an additional $22.5 million to get through June 30. Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the needy, started the current year with $840 million in state money and is facing a $77 million shortfall, director David Dzielak told lawmakers in September.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who currently chairs the Budget Committee, urged caution in spending.
"Mississippi is not immune from what's going on in the national economy," Reeves said.
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