- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Legislative leaders launched a review of Mississippi’s tax system and government spending Monday, saying they want to move away from income taxes and toward charging people based on their use of government services.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, have appointed one joint House-Senate committee to review taxes and 10 joint committees to review spending by various agencies.

“I would like to see us move toward more of a user-based system, than an income-based system, as much as possible,” said Gunn, who said he’d like to see an overall decrease in taxes. “I think everyone ought to have skin in the game.”

The move came after lawmakers voted this year to phase in $415 million in tax cuts over the coming years, after agreeing to more than $350 million in tax cuts over the previous four years. Some House Republicans balked at the move, pushed by Reeves, but were reassured by the promise that cuts wouldn’t start for two years, giving time to study the tax system and make sure agencies aren’t wasting money.

Reeves, though, said last year’s tax cuts and the current study effort are part of a seamless process, giving no sign that he’s willing to go back on previous tax cuts.

“This tax-policy panel is really about building on our successes over the last five years,” Reeves said.

Democrats say the study should have happened before tax cuts were made. Several agencies have said budget changes this year led to cuts that caused a reduction of services.

“I think it’s a campaign strategy for all of the mishaps we’ve run into,” said Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni. “This administration now has, after the fact, tried to bring people together. I don’t know if it’s going to work or not.”

The new “working groups” duplicate the legislature’s existing committee structure and the powers of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, a group of top lawmakers that sets spending policy. The budget committee at one time held weeks-long hearings each fall into agency spending. But those hearings are now crammed into one week, with major agencies getting an hour or less to make their budget request for the next year. Few detailed questions are now asked.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said lawmakers also aren’t holding detailed enough meetings during legislative sessions.

“This is something we should be doing every year,” Clarke said. “All that was fine and good, but we really weren’t doing our job.”

Gunn and Reeves told lawmakers gathered at the Capitol that they’d like to consider recommendations during the 2017 legislative session, but will wait longer if needed. Gunn said he’s now interested in accelerating franchise tax cuts to begin a year from now, instead of in two years.

Reeves suggested that committees ask about executive salaries, agency travel, spending on office furniture and spending cars

“We’re not on a witch hunt here, at least not yet. I don’t want you to go in with the mindset that there’s massive misspending,” Gunn said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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