- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Top lawmakers are proposing a slightly smaller Mississippi budget for the coming year, despite their expectation that state revenue will increase.

The 13-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Tuesday released its $6 billion spending blueprint for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1. That would be $112.2 million smaller than the current budget.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said the plan could be changed once it’s debated by the full House and Senate. Lawmakers start meeting in January, and they have an early April deadline to adopt a spending plan.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant last month released his own proposal for a $6.2 billion budget, and it also could be considered during the session. Lawmakers typically pay more attention to their own budget ideas than the governor’s.

The legislative committee’s proposed budget would aside money for the second year of a teacher pay raise, but it would fall about $280 million short for the school funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. It would decrease funding for Medicaid, universities, community colleges, human services and mental health.

The legislative proposal would save money by reducing travel, limiting purchase of equipment and eliminating 2,200 vacant government jobs. It also would put millions of dollars into cash reserves.

Gunn and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves - who alternate as chairmen of the Budget Committee - said the proposal would not pay for ongoing expenses, such as salaries, by using sources of money that are available only a single year at a time, such as winnings from lawsuit settlements. During the Great Recession, legislators often used one-time money to supplement the budget, but critics say the practice is a bad habit.

“I think we’re in fantastic financial shape,” Gunn said Tuesday.

However, Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory said the proposal by the Republican-controlled budget committee ignores serious problems in one of the poorest states in the nation.

“While leaving our children uneducated and letting our highway system crumble, they’re putting money in the bank in Jackson and claiming that’s good,” Bryan said.

Mississippi’s tax collections were higher than expected for the first five months of the current fiscal year, and experts have predicted slow but steady growth in the state economy. Both of those things point toward the possibility that during the final weeks of the budget-writing process, legislators could increase the estimate of how much money the state will have available to spend in the coming year.

Legislative leaders also said Tuesday that some form of tax cut could be considered during the 2015 election-year session, when most lawmakers and statewide elected officials are gearing up to seek another four-year term.

“I think it’s certainly time for us to start having that conversation,” Reeves said when asked about the possibility of a tax cut proposal. However, he offered no specifics.

Bryant has said he’d like to cut taxes for people earning less than $53,000 a year. The governor estimated last month that about 300,000 households would benefit from the proposed $78.7 million cut.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .


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