Opinion: State budget situation improving, should help some in state elections

Published 6:31 am Monday, May 13, 2019

Mississippi is enjoying more robust tax collections in the current budget year than in the last one, which is a reflection of a healthier economy.

That will be a bragging point for politicians who are running for statewide offices or legislative seats this year and had a part — however large or small — in writing the state budget.

However, challengers are likely to point out that the current Mississippi budget leaves many things underfunded, including public education.

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Like most other states, Mississippi has a budget year that runs from July 1 through June 30.

A report released last week by the Legislative Budget Office shows that for the first 10 months of the current year, from July through April, Mississippi collected nearly $228 million more than it did during the same period a year ago. That is just over a 5% increase.

The strongest gain has been in collection of the “use tax,” which includes taxes people pay for online shopping. That figure increased 18.6% for the first 10 months of the current year compared to the same period last year.

Also comparing this 10-month stretch to the last one, corporate income tax collections were up 12.4%, individual income tax collections were up 5.9% and sales tax collections were up 2.5%.

Writing a state budget is a long process, and much of the work is based on educated guesswork about how the economy will fare and how that will affect the amount of money the state will collect.

Agencies submit funding requests months in advance, and it is standard procedure for legislators to warn directors that programs are not likely to receive all the money they want or need.

Legislators in Mississippi and many other states are required to balance the budget each year, unlike their federal counterparts. So, in years when revenue falls short of expectations, the governor is required to make midyear spending cuts.

During the budget year ran from July 2015 through June 2016, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant had to slice budgets twice because of lagging tax collections.

Weeks before the beginning of the budget year that ran from July 2016 to June 2017, legislative leaders said they had overestimated how much money the state was expected to collect. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, issued a joint statement that attributed the $56.8 million shortfall to a “staff error.”

It was about a 1 percent mistake in a $5.8 billion general fund. Many agency directors had already received less money than they requested for the year, and the error meant they had to pinch spending even more.

The budget situation is better now, although Mississippi remains one of the poorest states in the nation.

The Legislative Budget Office published a report in April that compares how money is allocated for state government for the current year, fiscal 2019, and for the coming year, fiscal 2020.

The total budget is made up of state and federal money. The state-funded portion of the budget is increasing from $6.1 billion in the current year to nearly $6.4 billion in the coming year, an increase of almost 3.9%.

The April report includes short narratives called “session highlights” that show granular details of some budgets. For example, the state will spend a bit more on public defenders and Capitol police officers.

The report has details about how much money is allocated for specific road and bridge projects around the state during fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020 — a list that largely reflects how influential particular politicians are in the Legislature.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.