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Senate passes agency budgets based on Personnel Board exemptions

Some budget bills passed in the Mississippi Senate on Friday were based on expectations that some agencies will reduce spending by 2 percent, says Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee.

Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said a bill passed earlier this session by the Senate removed 25 agencies from the oversight of the state Personnel Board, eliminating job security for thousands of employees. Those are the agencies that are expected to reduce their budgets by 2 percent.

He said the move will save about $11 million throughout the state budget.

During the budget drafting process, each chamber passes its own version of agency spending bills. The details of the budget are usually hammered out in conference, when members of both chambers meet and approve a final plan. Most years, budget talks are completed in the final days of the session.

Lawmakers are at the midway point of the 2008 session. Finding ways to adequately fund state government has been the priority as revenue growth has slowed. Lawmakers have told most state agencies they’ll have to work with level, if not reduced, funding during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The Personnel Board bill, which is supported by Gov. Haley Barbour and is pending in the House, would allow the agencies to hire and fire employees without going through a lengthy appeal process. Critics have said it will open the door to mass firings or create a way to give sizable pay increases to some and not others since the Personnel Board also approves salary adjustments.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said the bill may not fare well in his chamber.

“The general attitude of the House is we’re very skeptical of doing this. We’ve had much experience for many years in developing a good work force of state employees,” McCoy said Friday. “The security the Personnel Board gives the state employees is very important to the process of retaining and recruiting employees.”

Likewise, Nunnelee said a pay raise bill that came from the House will look much different when it leaves the Senate.

“We are not taking into account any pay raises. It leaves out pay raises for lawmakers and for the eight statewide employees,” Nunnelee said of the bill that hasn’t come up for a vote yet in the Senate.

The legislation, which narrowly passed the House, also gives pay raises to judges, district attorneys and county supervisors. Nunnelee said he would approve funding for the judges and judicial staff.

McCoy shrugged off Senate plans to change the bill.

“People can make these strong statements … about what they’re going to do and not going to do. It’s pretty early in the process to be throwing down gauntlets,” McCoy said. “We’ll go through the process and in the end we’ll have a balanced budget and state services will go on.”