March 22, 2013 10:46:32 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers are giving themselves a bit more wiggle room in writing a budget for the coming year.
The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee met Thursday and voted to add $97 million to the estimate of how much money the state can spend during fiscal 2014, which starts July 1. The estimate is now slightly over $5.5 billion.
A group of experts, including the state economist and the state fiscal officer, recommended the $97 million increase based on a slight uptick in state economic activity.
The experts also recommended adding $60 million to the revenue estimate for the current budget year, which ends June 30. On a split vote, the committee rejected that recommendation, with Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves saying the national economy is "fragile" and he worries that the state might not collect the additional $60 million.
The House and Senate have passed early versions of budget bills for the coming year, and at this point the Senate has proposed spending slightly more than the House. The two chambers have sent more than 100 budget bills to conference committees for final negotiations. Lawmakers face an early April deadline to deliver a budget to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said budget writers are still trying to reduce the use of "one-time money." For the past several years, lawmakers have dipped into money that is only available a single year at a time -- things like lawsuit settlements -- to pay for recurring state expenses, such as workers' salaries.
"The good news to me is the economy appears to at least have stabilized," Gunn said Thursday. "I don't know how quickly it's improving but it is at least not getting any worse and it appears that revenues are increasing."
State agencies have requested millions more dollars than the state has available to spend, even with the increase. Still, Gunn said the higher estimate will make it easier for lawmakers to distribute money among state agencies.
"More money is good," Gunn told reporters.
Rep. Johnny Stringer of Montrose, a Democrat who chaired the House Appropriations Committee from early 2004 until early 2012, said it was a mistake for budget writers not to add $60 million to the current year's revenue estimate. Accepting the recommendation would've allowed lawmakers to spend the money and to fill several funding gaps, including $33 million that the Department of Corrections says it needs to operate through June 30. It's unclear whether the House and Senate money managers will find ways to cover the shortfalls for the current year.
Lawmakers are considering tax incentives that could reduce state revenue by millions of dollars in the coming year, but those bills have also been sent to negotiations and leaders say it's not clear how many of them will win final approval. Some Democrats say the proposed tax breaks could cause problems because money is already tight.
No across-the-board pay raises are planned for state employees, but lawmakers plan to use tax dollars to cover the increased demand from the Public Employees Retirement System. That means state workers' contributions to their own pension fund will stay the same.
Funding for public schools is expected to be about the same in the coming year as it is this budget year.