State agencies need reality check over funding requests

Published 5:00 am Monday, September 28, 2009

In the wake of a round of budget cuts by Gov. Haley Barbour andthe possibility of more before year’s end, that any state agencywould be asking for more money next year is quite franklymystifying.

Yet multiple state agencies and institutions last week pitchedhigher funding requests as the Joint Legislative Budget Committeebegan its deliberations for the new state budget that will startJuly 1. A formal budget recommendation will be prepared forlawmakers to consider when they convene in January.

The requested funding increases make one wonder if some stateagency leaders have read a newspaper, saw a TV newscast or listenedto the radio lately. The fact that the nation and Mississippi arein an economic crunch has been impossible to miss.

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Perhaps one of the more egregious sought-after increases was $50million – or 25 percent – more for the state Department of MentalHealth, which is already one of the largest agencies in stategovernment. We have to agree with state Sen. Billy Hewes, who saidthat kind of request would be “eye-popping even in good times.”

Rather than adding funds, state officials are looking to makecuts. Corrections and Medicaid, one of the more popular stateprograms, were spared in the earlier round for announced cuts.

State law says agency funding cannot be reduced further untilall agencies have seen their funding trimmed. That would appear tolay the groundwork for a contentious funding battle overCorrections and Medicaid should the need arise.

Anyone with any insight in the budget picture is warning thatthe future could be harder than the current year, when lawmakersfailed to agree on a budget during the regular session and wereonly able to after federal stimulus funds were allocated to thestate. That one-time revenue stream will soon be drying up.

“In 2011, we’re not going to have stimulus dollars to plug thegaps,” State Auditor Stacey Pickering told a Brookhaven civic clubduring a speech last week.

Former District 92 Rep. Jim Barnett was fond of saying it waseasier to develop a state budget during lean times than it was whenstate coffers were flush with funds.

But Barnett never saw times like these during his legislativetenure. The fiscal reality is that current lawmakers are facingsome of the toughest economic times they’ve ever faced while inoffice.

In preparing the new budget, they will have to identifypriorities for what funding is available and state agencies willhave to become leaner in their operations. Funding requests thathave no hope of or justification for being realized serve nopurpose and only make a hard job for budget writers evenharder.