Doty says revenues won’t be enough

Published 10:15 pm Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mississippi government agencies are seeking about $800 million more for the next budget year — roughly a 13 percent increase in a $5.6 billion budget — and a Lincoln County legislator warns that with slow economic growth, there won’t be enough new tax revenue to cover all the requests.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Thursday held the first of two days of hearings as they start working on a spending plan for the year that begins July 1.

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, in her second year to serve on the bipartisan committee, said she expects the estimated resources to be similar to last year’s.

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“Almost everyone who has come in today has asked for additional money,” she told The Daily Leader Thursday. “We know that we will not be able to meet their entire request. Every agency that comes in knows that.”

Wish lists must be whittled to the most pressing needs.

“This really starts the process of setting the budget of the year,” she said.

The eight-man, two-woman committee heard from six agencies Thursday, starting with the Department of Education.

Their budget request included a $500,000 increase in funding for Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven. The school, which serves 11th- and 12th-graders, is funded only through MDE. The same goes for Mississippi School for the Blind and Deaf and Mississippi School of Math and Science.

“MSA took a cut last year,” Doty said, explaining legislators were able to save MSA from the governor’s ax in at least one round of cuts he made.

She said she’d like to see the money they receive to be used to keep up infrastructure and the grounds at the historic location.

“I was glad to see that at least MDE included them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will get the $500,000,” she said.

They also heard from the Department of Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher, who focused on the rising cost of the opioid fight.

“He said the medical examiner is backlogged and overloaded because of investigations of drug overdoses,” Doty said.

DPS is requesting money to fill job vacancies at the state Crime Lab, where director Sam Howell said the three medical examiners are doing about 1,500 autopsies a year. At an average of 500 autopsies per medical examiner, that is twice the recommended rate of no more than 250 per examiner per year, he said.

John Dowdy, director of the Bureau of Narcotics, said that Mississippi, like other states, is seeing an epidemic of opioid abuse. He said at least 150 people have died of drug overdoses in Mississippi this year. Ten of those overdose deaths happened last week alone.

Fisher also asked for more money to hire additional troopers to patrol state highways and interstates.

Copiah-Lincoln Community College President Ronnie Nettles opened the presentation from the community colleges in the state.

“It was good to see him there,” she said.

Institutions of Higher Learning, Information and Technology Systems and Child Protection Services also made pitches for more funding.

“It was a full day of presentations,” she said.

Doty asked to be on the joint budget committee last year because she’s attended the meetings as an observer in the past.

“It really almost sets the tone for the legislative session,” she said.

That session begins Jan. 2.

Doty will hear more presentations today, including one from Medicaid.

She said their next step as a committee is to adopt the revenue estimate for 2019, which will occur in late November or early December.

That estimate can make or break a state, even if it’s only off 1 percent. That 1 percent miss last year amounted to $56 million.

State economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers Thursday that Mississippi has had “lackluster” economic performance since the Great Recession, and pay levels have not grown significantly.

“A lot of the jobs that we have created over the past few years have been either part-time or low-paying,” Webb said.

He said he expects continued slow growth, partly because Mississippi has a large number of people of working age who don’t have jobs.

The Department of Revenue is requesting a slight budget increase so it can hire auditors. Commissioner Herb Frierson said it’s an effort to increase tax collections. He also said the department is having trouble retaining experienced certified public accountants because they can make money working for private companies or even in some other parts of state government.

“We’re going to have some real good conversations about our professional people and their pay,” Frierson said.

Jess Dickinson, who stepped down as a state Supreme Court justice to lead the Department of Child Protective Services starting this week, said his agency wants to hire more workers and needs more office space.

“The drug epidemic is forcing Child Protective Services to have more expenses because more children are going into foster care. That’s additional social workers and foster care payments to families,” she said.

Sally Doty