Special session focuses on state budget

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 5, 2017

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi legislators are hoping to make quick work of a special session that focuses on money.

The session begins at 10 a.m. today, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant says he hopes it will last only a day or two.

Lawmakers need to set budgets for the attorney general’s office and the Department of Transportation. Those are the last unresolved parts of an overall $6 billion state spending plan for the year that begins July 1.

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Bryant is also proposing some long-term changes to the budget process to address concerns that three rating agencies have raised about the state’s finances since last summer. He released these ideas Friday in a package he calls the “Fortify Act.” House and Senate leaders say members need to evaluate them.

Bryant wants the state to increase the amount of money that the state puts into its rainy day fund.

He wants to put a requirement into law for the Legislative Budget Office to write multiyear financial plans. Bryant said the office already does this, but mandating it will please the rating agencies.

He also wants lawmakers to change the handling of money that is left over at the end of each budget year, putting more of it into savings and into a fund that helps pay for long-term projects. He said doing that could decrease the state’s reliance on borrowing.

Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Burton said Bryant has spoken to top lawmakers, and leaders from each chamber have been talking to each other about the governor’s ideas.

“Some of those are just minor tweaks,” said Burton, a Republican from Newton. “Some are major policy changes, like increasing the amount going into the rainy day fund. That’s a pretty heavy lift.”

Putting aside more money in the rainy day fund could be a challenge because state tax collections have lagged behind expectations most months the past couple of years, and Bryant has had to make multiple rounds of budget cuts. Many agencies are already receiving less money than they requested.

While some lawmakers have said more money should be removed from the rainy day fund to decrease the impact of budget cuts, others say more money needs to be put into the fund so the state will have a stronger safeguard in case the economy falters and state revenue drops, as it did during the Great Recession.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, a Republican from Meridian, said bolstering the rainy day fund is “a prudent thing to do.”

“The idea is that if the rainy day fund is full, it ought to be enough to get you past most really bad patches,” Snowden said.

He said building up savings doesn’t just happen on its own.

“It’s not like it’s ‘found money,’” Snowden said. “It’s actually systematically laid aside. We deliberately do it.”