Spending isn’t the only thing discussed at budget hearings

Published 4:40 pm Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Many agency heads have learned that state spending isn’t the only thing discussed during hearings held by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Some of the 14 committee members use the face-to-face to ask about particular problems or to express concerns from residents, often putting agency leaders on the hot seat.

Attorney General Jim Hood appeared before the Budget Committee on Tuesday, telling them he wasn’t asking for increased funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

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A few of the questions that followed weren’t related to his budget, including one from Rep. Diane Peranich, D-DeLisle.

Peranich wanted to know if Hood’s Hurricane Katrina fraud investigators had captured a man who was bilking Gulf Coast residents by promising to rebuild or repair homes and then fleeing with the money.

Hood wasn’t familiar with the case, but said he would check on it. His office’s home repair fraud unit has made more than 60 arrests of shady contractors who take advantage of the residents who are recovering from the Aug. 29, 2005, storm.

Hood said his office encourages property owners to use Mississippi contractors and check for credentials.

“All those precautions don’t help if their dealing with a con,” Hood said.

Mississippi Development Authority executive director Gray Swoope, who appeared before the Budget Committee on Monday, had trouble answering a question about job creation from House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.

Watson, whose committee is instrumental in passing legislation related to economic development, asked where information was documented about whether 40,000 jobs had been created in the last four years.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who is seeking a second term in office, has begun airing a campaign advertisement that touts that 40,000 jobs have come to Mississippi since he’s been in office.

Watson never mentioned Barbour’s ad, but he asked Swoope if there were any statistics on how many jobs were created through legislative action during the same time period. Swoope’s answer was “no.” Watson then asked if Swoope knew how many jobs were lost.

“I can’t answer that,” Swoope responded.

The Budget Committee spends two weeks in September listening to the budget requests of all state agencies. The information is used to help the committee recommend a spending plan to the full House and Senate when the Legislature convenes in January.

“It’s also an opportunity to interface for our constituency,” Peranich said of the hearings.

Sometimes, it’s a chance for mundane small talk.

When Marie Antoon, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, appeared before the Budget Committee, legislators asked questions about radio reception in their hometowns.

Watson said he is a fan of the news shows and classical music on MPB, but “some mornings, my radio struggles.”

Antoon nodded.

“In theory, we cover Hattiesburg,” she said. “But Hattiesburg is a little bit of a problem.”

She said MPB radio also has spotty coverage around Kosciusko and Iuka, partly because of the curvature of the earth and the distance between transmission towers.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, told Antoon he enjoys some of the local programming MPB produces, particularly “Southern Remedy,” a radio show that allows listeners to phone in and ask doctors about ailments.

“I recognized one person who called in and wanted to know what to do about a hangover,” Stringer said.

Antoon asked if the doctor gave the right answer.

“I think they told ’em not to drink anymore,” Stringer said.