Bryant’s 1st Miss. budget carries ’lots of cuts’

Published 4:08 pm Thursday, February 2, 2012

Gov. Phil Bryant proposed Tuesday to cut state spending by $26 million to $5.49 billion in 2013 while also insisting on building $100 million in state reserves.

The newly inaugurated Republican summarized his first budget as a “lot of cuts,” saying he won’t raise taxes and that state revenues have yet to recover from the recession.

“I tell you this is the most challenging budget I’ve ever seen for any governor or Legislature,” said Bryant, who was nonetheless upbeat, describing himself as a “problem solver.”

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The proposal is a step toward adopting next year’s state spending plan. Lawmakers will get the final say. They typically adopt some, but rarely all, of any governor’s budget suggestions.

Bryant said he’d sell a state jet to raise $2 million, and give $5 million more to state tax collectors in hopes they could use it to collect $10 million. Beyond that, he wants to rely on the budget ax.

Many agencies would get 5.5 percent less in the year beginning July 1. Bryant would cut K-12 school funding by $73 million or more than 3 percent, demanding districts spend reserves to make up the shortfall. That would leave the state’s funding formula, first adopted in 1997, almost $330 million below full funding in 2013.

“I’m going to ask school districts to help,” Bryant said. “I wish we had it all, but we don’t.”

Though Bryant described his proposal as keeping funding level for K-12 schools, state Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, disagreed.

“It’s not level state funding,” said Brown, former chairman of the House Education Committee.

Schools don’t have uniform levels of reserves, he said, adding: “School districts are all different, depending on cash flow.”

Community colleges, which have been struggling with less money and growing enrollment, would get 5.5 percent less. Universities would get 5.5 percent less too, although funding would be held level for financial aid. Still, those cuts could spell big tuition increases next fall. Less money for community colleges could cause particular heartburn, said Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, the House’s chief budget writer.

Medicaid funding would be held level at $763 million, but the program would have to stretch that money to cover a projected 36,000 new patients. That, plus an increase in state funding for current patients, would normally cost $100 million, but Bryant said the state would change its reimbursement method to make up the shortfall.

“I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s business, but I’ve got to try to find $100 million,” Bryant said. A shift to a uniform payment schedule would raise reimbursements to some hospitals but cut it for others, he said.

The state prison system, district attorneys, Military Department, Highway Patrol and Veterans Affairs Board also would be spared cuts. Bryant, a former deputy sheriff whose aunt was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1981, said he wouldn’t cut law enforcement “because your safety depends on it.”

Bryant asked the Legislature to waive state civil service protections for four years, allowing agency heads to hire and fire at will. He also asked that agencies get lump-sum budgeting authority, which would remove requirements that an agency spend so much on salaries, so much on supplies, and so on.

“I trust agency directors and I trust elected officials,” Bryant said. “They need the ability to manage.”

Some of the proposals, including rebuilding state savings and forcing schools to spend reserves, are similar to the budget that former Gov. Haley Barbour proposed before he left office. Bryant also agreed with Barbour’s plan to spend more than $230 million in one-time money, including the last $97 million in money that Mississippi won in its settlement with tobacco companies

Like Barbour, Bryant said he was wrestling with the drying up of federal stimulus money that has been propping up Mississippi’s budget during the recession. He also said that one way or another, the state needs to keep about $100 million in reserves for 2014 and later years.

“We continue to use one-time money again and again,” Bryant said. “The bill comes due sooner or later, and I think this is later.”

Frierson said he supports setting aside $100 million in reserves, as Bryant wants.

“I don’t want to go into 2014 without any reserve funds,” Frierson said. “That would be really stupid.”

Bryant proposed a 6.5 percent cut to the governor’s office, saying he wanted to “lead by example” by reducing his budget more than 5.5 percent. A few agencies would be cut even more, though. Bryant wants to slice funding by 15 percent to public broadcasting, the state Library Commission and the state Arts Commission. He would cut 20 percent from the Department of Marine Resources.

Besides the Revenue Department, the state would spend 7.7 percent more at the Department of Human Services to cover requirements of a lawsuit. It would spend 13 percent more to repay debt, and 23 percent more to make mandated payments to north Mississippi school districts that lack 16th Section lands.