JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Top Mississippi lawmakers on Tuesday increased the estimate of how much money state government can spend this year and next.
The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee made the changes after hearing from Bob Neal, a senior economist at the state’s University Research Center, that the state economy has performed well the past several months. Neal said tax collections have exceeded expectations since last July, and a small slowdown during the cold winter months was a “temporary pause in a gradually improving economy.”
Budget Committee members added nearly $150 million to the state’s revenue estimate for fiscal 2014, which ends June 30, and another $98 million to the estimate for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.
The state will spend roughly $6 billion of state money during fiscal 2015, most of it from the $5.5 billion general fund. That’s a slight increase from fiscal 2014, with a general fund that’s now set at nearly $5.4 billion.
The changes give lawmakers more flexibility during their final days of budget writing. Saturday is the deadline for House and Senate negotiators to file final versions of more than 100 spending proposals for the coming year. They’re still talking about how much to spend on a few high-profile proposals such as a teacher pay raise and a training school for new Highway Patrol troopers.
“The economy is slowly improving, but we still need to be conservative in our budgeting,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said Tuesday during the Budget Committee meeting.
Legislators have acknowledged for months that they won’t fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to ensure that schools receive enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. The formula was put into law in 1997 and phased in over several years. It has been fully funded only twice - during the state election years of 2003 and 2007.
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is chairman of the Budget Committee, said that increasing the revenue estimate will help, but: “We’re not going to be able to fund everything everybody wants.”
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said in a news release that he wants public safety to be a priority as legislators set the final budget details. He wants them to pay for a trooper school, additional assistant district attorneys and law enforcement “strike force” teams. He’s also seeking additional money for the state Crime Lab.
“However, we must still budget conservatively,” Bryant said. “Even though revenues are up, I am adamant that the state continue to save and set aside a portion of revenues as a cushion against uncertainty.”
Reeves and Gunn also have said repeatedly that they intend to put millions of dollars into the state’s financial reserves.
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