Miss. budget hearings set for mid-September

September 5, 2012 10:34:48 AM



JACKSON -- Mississippi money minders will meet later this month to start planning a state budget for fiscal 2014, which begins next July 1. 


House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said lawmakers will have to be cautious as they write a budget because the state economy is still recovering. He said he expects state agencies to request more money than the state will have available to spend, which is not unusual during the early stages of the process. 


The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee gathers Sept. 17-20 to hear spending requests from agency directors. The public meetings are held at the Woolfolk state office building, near the Capitol in downtown Jackson. 


The full 122-member House and 52-member Senate will vote on fiscal 2014 budget sometime in the spring, and the spending plan must be approved by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. 


During fiscal 2013, which started July 1, Mississippi's overall state budget includes just over $5.5 billion in state money. That's only 0.4 percent, or $22.3 million, more than it spent during fiscal 2012, which ended June 30. 


The minuscule growth represents the flat state economy. 


Dr. David Dzielak, a physician who leads the Division of Medicaid, said his agency was asked to keep its fiscal 2014 budget request no more than 1.3 percent higher than the current year. 


"We're very comfortable with the budget we put in. We think it's as accurate as it can be," Dzielak said. 


Frierson said it's difficult to set a budget for Medicaid, a government insurance program for the poor. It covers about one in five Mississippi residents. 


"Medicaid is a moving target," Frierson said. "We don't know how many people are going to be sick, don't know how many are going to sign up or drop off." 


Frierson said it also can be difficult to predict, months in advance, which medical procedures or services Medicaid recipients will need at any given time. 


As they set state spending levels, legislative leaders are trying to reduce the habit of using money that's only available a single year at a time to pay for expenses that return annually. 


"We're going to have to wrestle with that again," Frierson said. 


For example, during the current year, legislators padded out the budget with $2 million from selling a state airplane, $26.6 million from Hurricane Katrina recovery funds and $97.5 million from a health care trust fund. The trust fund was established in the late 1990s with money the state is collecting from the settlement of a massive lawsuit against tobacco companies. Although the trust fund originally was designed to grow for decades and help pay for health care costs, state officials have been draining it to cover a wide range of annual expenses.