- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - As Gov. Phil Bryant cut state budgets by $51 million last week, he and Republican lawmakers went through the ritual obligations of sorrow and dismay.

So far this year, Bryant has cut more than $100 million out of a $6.4 billion budget. That’s less than 2 percent. Revenues have actually grown slightly so far this year, if one-off receipts such as lawsuit settlements are included. But receipts are again running below estimates, there are still holes to be filled in the current 2017 budget year, and the state could be staring at even deeper cuts to start in 2018.

Legislative budget writers, meeting with agency heads in hearings, are trying to gauge what the minimum amount of money is that will allow each agency to keep performing its functions. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said the mission would be a lot easier if state revenues were expanding.

“We all want growth,” Clarke said. “We’ve got to have some growth if you’re going to provide the core services.”

But among critics, there’s a spreading sense that despite the expressions of concern, what’s going on is all part of the Republican blueprint.

Listen, for example, to Democratic Attorney Jim Hood, who’s mulling a run for governor in 2019: “It’s not that they’re mean spirited and they don’t care about these people, I don’t think. They came down here on a mission. They were elected to office to cut government, choke government off and cut taxes. And governing and protecting victims, that’s second.”

Bryant argues that state government has become bloated while he’s been governor because spending has grown rapidly as state revenues rebounded from the recession.

“That kind of growth in spending over such a short period is simply unsustainable, and must be addressed,” Bryant wrote in his budget recommendation last fall, calling on lawmakers to “fund only those core functions of government that provide clear benefits to our citizens.”

There have been a lot of tax cuts. Legislative budget staff count at least 43 bills they believe decreased state tax revenue that were passed between 2012 and 2015. Estimates, forecast that those tax cuts could reduce state tax revenue by as much as $287 million in the current budget year. That only accounts for half the cuts passed by lawmakers in those years. The Department of Revenue said it couldn’t estimate the costs of the others.

Revenue is expected to continue to drop from those 2012-2015 tax cuts. And, of course, there are more and bigger tax cuts coming, thanks to a bill that lawmakers passed last year to phase out the corporate franchise tax and cut income taxes. That measure is projected to cut taxes by another $415 million over 12 years. The first small cuts begin in the current budget, with more taking effect in the 2018 budget beginning July 1.

State leaders hoped those tax cuts would produce strong economic growth. But in 2015, federal figures showed Mississippi’s overall economic output was 3.5 percent smaller than in 2008, compared to 9.3 percent growth nationwide in that period. Barring an unexpected spurt, 2016 figures will show Mississippi still hasn’t made it back to pre-recession levels, a finding echoed by employer payroll figures that remain 1.8 percent below their precession peak.

One sign things are bad? The state has lost population two years in a row, as out-migration has accelerated.

But state economist Darrin Webb says revenue collections have come in even worse that economic figures would indicate.

“The revenues, to me, are underperforming what the economy is doing,” Webb said. “Have the tax cuts played a role? Of course they have.”

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Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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