Barbour’s budget would blend some state agencies

Published 3:15 pm Friday, November 20, 2009

Most of the attention in Gov. Haley Barbour’s budget proposal has been focused on his plans to merge universities, consolidate school districts and close mental health centers.

However, the far-reaching budget proposal, unveiled Monday, would restructure several areas of state government, should it become law.

In normal years, when university mergers and school district consolidation were not being discussed as ways to tighten the state budget, many of the governor’s other proposals would be big news.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

For instance, the second-term Republican is advocating merging the state Forestry Commission into the Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

He also recommends:

— Transferring the Department of Transportation Enforcement Division officers to the Department of Public Safety. The DOT has about 40 officers providing several law enforcement functions, such as checking for weight limit violations.

— Merging the Department of Banking and Consumer Finance with the Secretary of State’s office.

— Placing the Commission on the Status of Women within the Attorney General’s office.

— Closing Oakley Training School and enhancing the operation of local juvenile centers.

— Privatizing the function of supplying wine to retailers. That function is currently carried out by the state Tax Commission.

— Expanding the trusty program, which can lead to early release for state inmates and reducing the amount of the payments for housing state inmates in county jails.

Those recommendations come on top of Barbour’s two education-related plans: to reduce from 152 to 100 the number of the state’s public school districts, and to merge Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State University, while placing Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State under the Jackson State University umbrella.

The transfer of DOT officers would eliminate a duplication of work, Barbour said.

“Officers in both agencies perform similar functions and there is no need for such duplication,” he said. “This will improve the public’s safety on the state’s highways and roads.”

Steve Simpson, commissioner of Public Safety, said about 40 state troopers are in line to retire. With no funds available to replace them, he said, the DOT personnel could be trained to fill the gap.

John Allison, executive director of the Department of Banking and Consumer Finance, and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann have had preliminary discussions about Barbour’s plan to merge the agency that regulates financial institutions from banks to pawn shops into the Secretary of State’s office.

Banking and Consumer Finance does not receive any state general funds. It is what is known as a special fund agency — funded by fees imposed on the institutions that it regulates.

Hosemann said that if the agency could operate more economically by being merged with his office, the state could see savings that could be directed toward the general fund.

“Then the Legislature could spend it on health care, education or whatever members thought was appropriate,” Hosemann said.

He added there is no one area in the state budget to look for savings to deal with what Barbour has called roughly a $700 million shortfall.

Hosemann said savings must be obtained in numerous areas, such as placing the Department of Banking within the Secretary of State’s office “to come up with the aggregate amount.”

Another area that might generate interest would be placing the Forestry Commission within the Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

The Forestry Commission performs a number of functions, from forest management to protection, such as fighting wildfires.

Barbour said creating a Department of Agriculture and Forestry could save more than $4 million in the upcoming budget year and more in the future.

State Forester Charlie Morgan was not immediately available for comment.

Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville, who has been involved in forestry issues, said, “I think it is time to look at combining the agencies. I think that might be our best option to ensure we have funds to provide services to the public.”

The governor does want to spend additional money in some areas, including $4 million to the state Tax Commission to hire more auditors that, he said, could lead to the collection of an additional $260 million in back taxes and $33 million for a new computer system for the agency.

“We must all accept that for a few years, it cannot be business as usual with any budget,” Barbour said.