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Miss. lawmakers moving into final budget weeks

Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mississippi lawmakers are entering the final stages of writing a $5.5 billion state budget for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1.

At this point, the Senate is planning to spend about $20 million more than the House. The two chambers have until early April to agree on one set of figures and deliver a spending plan to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.

Lawmakers are considering tax incentives that could reduce state revenue by millions of dollars. Some Democrats, in particular, say that could cause problems because money is already tight.

No across-the-board pay raises are planned for state employees, but lawmakers plan to use tax dollars to cover the increased demand from the Public Employees Retirement System. That means state workers' contributions to their own pension fund will stay the same.

Funding for public schools is expected to be about the same in the coming year as it is this budget year.

During a debate last week, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, criticized budget writers for moving $20 million out of a fund for public school buildings. The money is being routed into the schools' basic funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

MAEP is designed to give each school district enough money to meet midlevel academic standards, but it has been fully funded only twice in more than a decade. The formula was not fully funded during the current year, and top lawmakers say it won't be in fiscal 2014, either.

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton, said legislators for years have been moving $20 million from the school building fund into MAEP.

"I know we've been doing it for years," Bryan said. "That's not a mitigating factor. That's an aggravating factor."

Burton replied: "I don't disagree that in a perfect world, we would fund all these things. But we don't have a perfect world."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said the economy is recovering slowly but state revenues remain lower than officials have wanted. That means most agencies won't get as much money as they requested, and some will receive less money in the coming year than they're receiving now.

"Projections are that we are going to continue to practice triage in the budget process for several years to come," Frierson said.

The House last week argued about a proposal to cut about $6 million from the Department of Mental Health, which is receiving more than $595 million this year. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, called the proposed cut "gargantuan" because a loss of state dollars will translate into a greater loss of federal dollars.

"Our Department of Mental Health is in dire, dire, dire circumstances," Holland said.

Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville, said people often rely on the state to provide services for the mentally disabled or for people who need treatment for drug and alcohol problems.

"This will reflect on you back home and I can tell you that with all sincerity," Eaton said, speaking against the proposed budget cut.

House Public Health Committee Chairman Sam Mims, R-McComb, said he'll try to steer more money back into mental health, if possible.

"I'm going to work very hard with the chairman of Appropriations to get the very best product we can," Mims said.


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