September 19, 2013 10:01:30 AM
JACKSON -- The Mississippi Department of Public Safety is seeking 45 percent more money from the state general fund for the coming year, a far-larger increase than any other agency has requested during this week's state budget hearings.
"That's just not realistic to me," Sen. Terry Brown told Public Safety Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz during a contentious hearing Wednesday.
"I understand that you've got needs," Brown said. "Everyone that comes before us has got needs."
State revenue has grown 5 percent for each of the past two years, and leaders expect similar growth in fiscal year 2015, which starts next July 1. Two other agencies have requested increases of more than 20 percent. Several have requested increases of 5 percent or less, and some are asking for decreases in their budgets.
Santa Cruz gave the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee few documents to support his budget presentation, although DPS provided documents later to lawmakers and reporters.
During the hearing, when Brown asked Santa Cruz to justify the big increase, the commissioner looked to other DPS administrators who shuffled through papers. After a long pause, Brown, R-Columbus, cut him off: "I withdraw the question."
Santa Cruz said DPS wants to train more state troopers. Information provided after the meeting showed DPS is requesting $7.7 million for trooper training, about $4 million more for the state Crime Lab, more than $2 million more for the Bureau of Narcotics and an additional $1.7 million for the Law Enforcement Officers' Training Academy, among other increases.
The total requested increase for DPS is $32 million from the general fund. The agency is getting roughly $71 million in the current budget year and is requesting nearly $103 million for fiscal 2015. The state-funded portion of Mississippi's overall budget, for everything from prisons to schools to public safety, is expected to be more than $5.8 billion.
In an email to The Associated Press, DPS Deputy Administrator Kenneth E. Magee said 82 of the 509 state troopers are eligible to retire now. "As of Dec. 1 this number increases to 102," he said.
He also said $2.9 million would go to a three-year modernization of a 20-year-old driver's license issuance system and database.
Magee said that for fiscal year 2013, which ended this past June 30, DPS received $5.1 million less than it needed to pay for salaries.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves scolded Santa Cruz for authorizing "realignment" of some DPS salaries, an administrative way of moving money within a budget to give employees bigger paychecks. That was not a pay raise, Santa Cruz responded. Reeves said it was a pay raise that legislators didn't authorize as a specific budget category.
Reeves, a Republican, said DPS hasn't been spending money where it should -- like, for example, buying new cars for troopers who are patrolling the highways in old, high-mileage vehicles. Santa Cruz told the Budget Committee that DPS bought 15 new vehicles for one of its divisions, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.
Reeves replied: "When you make purchases of vehicles and they don't go to people on the road, I wonder about your priorities."
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he couldn't explain why DPS didn't provide detailed information to the Budget Committee during the hearing: "It makes it hard for us to go to bat for them when we don't have that basic information."