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Agency heads get power in new budget

As a budget conferee, District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has beenworking to craft a state spending plan for the coming fiscal yearwhile most other lawmakers have been on a three-week hiatus.

The Brookhaven Democrat and other conferees debated the budgetthrough the weekend with Tuesday’s reconvening of the Legislaturebearing down on them, and it got a little testy at times. As theymet in the Capitol Saturday, Hyde-Smith found herself in a livelyargument about earmarked funding for the Mississippi Department ofHuman Services.

“I felt like to help the agency head we needed to remove theearmarks and give him lump sum authority, let him manage the budgetas best we can,” she said. “Those programs are all good programsI’m sure, but we don’t need to tie his hands for $4.5million.”

It’s not just DHS. With the budget for fiscal year 2011 expected tocontain $500 million less than the previous year, state agencyheads will be given regulated lump sum authority to fund theirorganizations as best as possible, Hyde-Smith said. The authorityhas long been a political point in the Legislature, with lawmakersworried that some department chiefs will abuse it.

“We put in some restrictive language that won’t just turn themloose,” Hyde-Smith said. “We’ve had to watch them carefully andlook at their historical spending to see where the excesses havebeen.”

The 2010 regular session should end shortly after lawmakers returnTuesday, Hyde-Smith said, with the realization that cuts across theboard are unavoidable leaving little room for maneuver.

The senator does not expect Brookhaven’s embattled stateinstitutions – the Mississippi School of the Arts, the MississippiAdolescent Center and the Crisis Intervention Center – to be closedor otherwise crippled. However, she and other local lawmakers agreethe $5.5 billion budget will leave some agencies wanting.

“We’re going to have some casualties with this budget,” saidDistrict 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven. “There’s absolutely nodoubt about it. Everybody’s going to take their lumps.”

The prospect of receiving an additional $187 million in Medicaidfunding from the federal government in time for the budget deadlineis all but gone, Currie said, but there’s a movement afoot toapprove two budgets – one without the $187 million and acontingency plan in case the money comes in later this year. Shesaid a backup budget would be bad practice for the state, and she’snot sure about taking another $187 million regardless.

“I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t want to owe China any moremoney,” Currie said.

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said the two-budgettrack has been agreed upon and makes sense. Around $100 millionwould be used to plug holes in the Medicaid budget immediately,with the remainder put back for the fiscal year 2012 budget, hesaid.

There will be no other room for adjustments, Moak said. Even thoughMississippi’s tax revenues have increased slightly in 2010, theLegislature is not prepared to throw caution to the wind andincrease the budget because of 30 days of improvement, hesaid.

“Some folks would try to push that, but there’s no one I’ve spokento on either side of the aisle who believes because we have onemonth with a slight increase during this bad economy we should usethat to try to increase budget numbers,” Moak said. “Whoever’stalking that game is just talking that game.”