Lawmakers pass largest budget in state history
Published 12:00 pm Monday, April 3, 2023
No tax cuts or refunds, more for schools and roads
After bitter arguments, stalemates and blown deadlines the Mississippi Legislature pulled an all-nighter and passed a state budget of $7.6 billion early Saturday morning, the largest budget — not counting federal funds — in the state’s history.
It includes a roughly $120 million increase in public K-12 education spending, an extra $620 million for road work and a $104 million bailout of the state’s struggling hospitals. It also includes more than $600 million for individual lawmakers’ projects this election year.
Despite pleas from hospitals, health advocates and some lawmakers, the Legislature again refused to expand Medicaid coverage — for which it would receive more than $1 billion a year in federal money — to cover working poor Mississippians and help hospitals struggling to provide care to the indigent.
The budget includes no new major tax cuts or refunds for Mississippians, despite vows by Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann early in the year to provide relief for taxpayers.
Hosemann had proposed a one-time rebate check for Mississippi taxpayers or cutting the state’s highest-in-the-nation tax on groceries. Reeves and Gunn proposed a phase-out of the state’s personal income tax. No agreement was reached, and no tax break was passed, although lawmakers last year enacted the largest income tax cut in state history, still being phased in.
After much dickering that held up other budget work late in the session, lawmakers on Friday night agreed to spend about $3 billion on K-12 education, an increase over this year of about $120 million.
The Senate had proposed revamping the state’s adequate education formula and fully funding it for the first time in years, which would have cost about $181 million. The House refused to add more money to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula, pushing instead for Legislature-directed spending for schools, including a $22-million raise for teachers’ assistants.
Neither agreed to the other’s proposals and in final negotiations agreed to provide an extra $100 million divided among schools based on numbers of students, with few restrictions other than the money cannot go to pay increases for superintendents, assistant superintendents and principals.
“This was a way to get a compromise,” Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar told his colleagues. “It’s almost the same effect as if it was in the (MAEP) formula.”
Most of the balance of the schools increase — about $17 million — is to cover increased insurance costs for education employees.
“I am pleased with it,” said House Education Chairman Richard Bennett. “I would have loved to fund raises for teachers’ assistants, but it’s a give and take … We’ve all got to sit down next year and look at the (MAEP) formula and what we need to change.”
Hosemann and Gunn said they were pleased with the final budget.
“From a $600 million-plus infrastructure plan to legislation strengthening our elections process, providing options for the continued collaboration of hospitals, and increasing the number of doctors and nurses in Mississippi, the session has been an overwhelming success,” Hosemann said. “The state is in excellent fiscal condition, we are paying off debt, our personal and business taxes are decreasing, and we have adopted a conservative budget which funds necessary services.
“I am particularly proud of the Senate’s earlier 52-0 commitment to fully funding the education of our children,” Hosemann said. “Our senators’ leadership on this issue resulted in an additional $100 million for our schools, which will fund local supplements for teachers, classroom supplies, diesel for buses, and all the other things necessary to providing every child in Mississippi with an opportunity for a first-class education.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn, who is not running for reelection and was presiding over his final regular session, said of the budget, “I think it meets a lot of needs across the state. We put another $100 million in public education. We are proud to be able to do that.”
This year’s legislative session also saw some of the worst partisan, racial and geographic division and argument in recent years, mostly centered around measures aimed at state takeover of policing, courts and infrastructure in the capital city of Jackson.
At a press conference Friday night, Democratic leaders Sen. Derrick Simmons and Rep. Robert Johnson III said Republican leaders wasted too much time and lucre on “targeting Jackson” and instead should have focused on the needs of average Mississippians.
“We had a $4 billion surplus and we wouldn’t even fully fund MAEP, provide money for hospitals and provide the kind of support Jackson needs,” Johnson said.
“Eighty percent of Mississippians want Medicaid expansion,” Simmons said. “Seventy nine percent want our schools fully funded. Another over 70% want us to restore the ballot initiative process. But what have we done here for 90 days? We spent our time dealing with bills targeting the city of Jackson … It’s an insult. This is an election year. … One thing that scares a politician is the fear of not being reelected … If you want Medicaid expansion, if you want the ballot initiative restored, if you want your schools fully funded, Democrats have supported that year after year.”
The Legislature appropriated $7 million in one fund for relief for residents impacted by the tornadoes that ripped through north Mississippi earlier this month killing at least 21 people and $7 million in another fund for housing for those impacted by the storms. In addition, $3 million was appropriated for the schools to help pay their damages from the tornadoes and $1.5 million for hospitals that suffered damages.
Legislators worked overnight Friday well into Saturday morning to fund dozens of pet projects throughout the state.
In an item separate from the budget, the Legislature did not pass any bills to restore voting rights to people who lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction. The House sent four bills to the Senate restoring voting rights, but Senate Judiciary B Chair Joey Fillingane opted not to bring any of those up for considerations before the full Senate.
Most years the Legislature passes a handful of suffrage bills (normally about five) each session.
By Geoff Pender and Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today