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Top Mississippi lawmakers start hearing agencies' budget requests for year that begins in July


JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi lawmakers are being asked to spend millions more dollars on education, Medicaid, mental health and other state services for the coming year.

A few state agency directors made requests Monday as the Joint Legislative Budget Committee opened two days of public hearings. The 14 committee members are in the early stages of considering how to spend taxpayers' money during fiscal 2017, which begins July 1.

The current year's state budget is about $6.3 billion, and state economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers Monday that trends point toward slow economic growth. That would translate to a modest increase in state tax collections.

"One area the state continues to struggle is in income growth," Webb said.

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright is requesting an additional $250 million, a 9.6 percent budget increase for elementary and secondary schools.

Medicaid director David Dzielak is requesting an additional $72 million, which is about a 7.4 percent increase in state funding for the government health insurance program for the needy.

The Department of Mental Health is requesting an additional $29 million, which is about a 4.7 percent increase, executive director Diana Mikula said.

Several times during the hearing Monday, lawmakers asked agency directors about budget cuts that would be needed if a judge orders the state to put more money into a budget formula known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The formula was put into law in 1997, but has been fully funded only two years since then.

Initiative 42, which will be on the Nov. 3 ballot, seeks to require the state to fund "an adequate and efficient system of public schools."

Legislative leaders who oppose the initiative say it could take budget-writing power away from the House and Senate and put it in the hands of a judge.

"As much as 40 percent of the general fund budget probably won't be in the direct control of the Legislature," House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said Monday.

Patsy Brumfield is spokeswoman 42 for Better Schools, a group touting the initiative. She has said lawmakers such as Snowden are engaging in scare tactics. She says spending increases could be phased in by the Legislature over several years, but citizens would have the right to file a lawsuit if funding falls short.

Although the state superintendent of education has not taken a public stance on Initiative 42, lawmakers asked Wright several questions about whether putting more money into the Mississippi Adequate Education Program during the current budget year would force her to cut spending in other parts of the education budget. She said if she had to enact midyear cuts, that would have a "significant impact" on early childhood programs and on reading coaches who have been hired to work with children in early elementary grades.

"Those reading coaches are worth their weight in gold," Wright said.

All state agencies are required to submit written requests showing how much they propose spending on employees, supplies and services during fiscal 2017. Those are posted to the Legislative Budget Office website: http://1.usa.gov/1KlthMn.


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