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Currie warns of tough budget ahead

Next year, the number is $600 million.

According to predictions from the governor’s office, that’s howmuch money will be missing when state lawmakers meet in January tocraft the fiscal year 2012 budget. Talk is already surfacing of new”sin” taxes – more taxes on cigarettes, more taxes on alcohol and abigger chip-in from the gaming industry.

But District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, plans to voteagainst those increases if they’re proposed. Speaking to theBrookhaven-Lincoln County Rotary Club and the Brookhaven ExchangeClub at separate meetings Thursday, she indicated her opposition toany kind of tax increases until state agencies disclose all theirsecrets and make an honest attempt to cut the fat from governmentspending.

“When you see me vote ‘no,’ you’ll understand,” Currie said. “Untilthey cut the fat out, I don’t think we need to tax anybody in thiseconomy.”

Currie told club members of the difficulty she’s experienced as afreshman lawmaker trying to uncover the spending habits of statedepartments and kill some of the fluff.

When she introduced a bill last year to strike down what she deemsunfair and unnecessary retirement contributions to administratorswho live in state-provided housing, her legislation died incommittee. So did a bill that would require all state agencies tolist their expenditures on the Internet.

When she asked state Institutions of Higher Learning how much eachpublic university was spending, she was turned away. Currie saidshe was told to visit each school’s library for a paper copy of thebudget.

“If you don’t tell me where you spend your tax money, how can Icontinue to support you?” she said.

But if Currie’s efforts to take the knife to state spending havethus far failed, maybe the public’s efforts can succeed. Sheencouraged club members to go on the offensive using a powerful newweapon – the Mississippi Center for Public Policy’s budget-trackingwebsite, http://seethepsending.org. The site lists every purchaseand amount spent by every state agency.

“It is the best thing that ever happened to government because now,for the first time, they have to be accountable to the taxpayers,”Currie said. “If I can’t do anything the legislation route, thebest way to do it is for the public to come unglued.”

Currie rattled off a few of the interesting – infuriating – thingsshe’s discovered on the website.

According to the site, all state agencies combined spent almost$4.3 million combined on out-of-state travel in fiscal year 2010.The Mississippi Department of Transportation spent almost $51,000on ammunition – the Mississippi Department of Corrections spentonly $35,000 on bullets.

“Who are they shooting at?” shouted an Exchange Club member, tomuch laughter.

Currie went on to pick on two of her favorite targets, theMississippi Department of Mental Health and IHL Commissioner HankBounds. She introduced legislation last year to dissolve andreconstitute mental health’s board of directors and tried to cutdown Bounds’ salary, which she stated at $400,000 per year.

“The President of the United States makes $400,000 per year. IsHank Bounds going to find peace in the Middle East?” sheasked.

She finds fault with mental health’s monumental size. One of thelargest state agencies, she said it employs almost 9,000 workers -more than the department of education – and operates on a budget of$632 million per year.

And the department is asking for more than $40 million inadditional funding for the next fiscal year, threatening to closeseveral facilities – including Brookhaven’s Mississippi AdolescentCenter – if it doesn’t get the money.

“That facility is on the chopping block because they can’t make itwork with $630 million per year,” she said.

Currie warned that hard times are ahead. She said the average stateemploys about 17 percent of its population, while Mississippiemploys 24 percent.

“It’s not sustainable. We can’t do it,” she said. “We have proppedup our budget with one-time money ever since (Hurricane) Katrina,and next year it’s all gone. The Katrina money is gone, and thetobacco trust fund is nearly wiped out. Some things have got tochange, and it’s not going to be pretty.”