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Miss. leaders cautious in setting revenue estimate

Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and top lawmakers say they've set a conservative estimate that the state can spend about $5 billion in the coming year.

Bryant met Monday with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. They agreed on a 1.4 percent increase in the revenue estimate for the current year, which ends June 30. The new total is just over $4.9 billion.

They also agreed on an additional 1.6 percent increase in the estimate for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, or roughly $5 billion.

Next year's revenue is projected to be $43.1 million higher than this year's.

The estimates are based on Mississippi's slow economic growth.

"The unfortunate part is the economy continues to lag," said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who's on the Budget Committee. "It looks like growth is going to be incredibly slow over the next two years and maybe beyond that."

Writing a budget is a long process.

This Wednesday, the governor releases his spending recommendations for education, health care, prisons, highways and other state services for fiscal 2014. Legislators release their recommendations Dec. 11.

Both plans will be debated during the legislative session that starts Jan. 8.

The House and Senate face an April 1 deadline to adopt a final budget.

Republican Bryant said Monday that his budget will include some money to establish a pilot program in some districts for merit pay for high-performing teachers.

"You're going to see some additional spending in education, which we think will help the workforce," Bryant said. "We talked about, already, helping teachers who are doing an excellent job by increasing their salaries. We'll talk more about that compensation system."

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who's also on the Budget Committee, said officials are trying to be cautious.

"Clearly, the committee has some serious concerns about the direction of the economy and what that's going to mean," Reeves said.

State economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers that Mississippi's economy showed some improvement from July through September.

"We haven't seen a strong enough or long enough recovery to say we've exited the recession, but it does appear that we are headed in that direction," Webb said.

The state's gross domestic product for the current calendar year is expected to be about four-tenths of 1 percent, Webb said. He said the projection for calendar 2013 is about 1.6 percent growth in the state's GDP and for calendar 2014 it's about 2.4 percent.

"Employment remains the weakest segment of our state's economy," Webb said.

Employment declined for four years in a row in Mississippi. For the first nine months of this year, it is about two-tenths of 1 percent below where it was for the same period in 2011.