New Albany, MS– If you’re busy, here’s a brief summary of what follows: The Mississippi governor and legislative leaders have made “a right mess” of the state’s finances. Not only do they appear clueless about how to sort out the shambles they have wrought, they have also been unable to fashion a face-saving way to admit it.
During recent weeks Governor Phil Bryant, Lieutenant-Governor Tate Reeves, House Speaker Phillip Gunn and our own local members of the state legislature have been incommunicado, hunkered down in their hidey holes. They have been dodging questions by public officials from 82 counties, 296 municipalities and nearly 150 public school districts in Mississippi.
Simply stated, the governor and legislature, for several years, have been systematically and deliberately cutting state funding for public schools, local law enforcement, local fire protection and other vital local services. They have slyly shifted the burden for funding those vital services from the state government to local county governments, city governments, school systems. While Bryant, Reeves, et al. have bragged about their “fiscal responsibility” and crowed about “tax cuts,” Mississippians in every single community have had to make up the difference by paying higher property taxes or cutting vital services, or both.
For several years, the top state politicians in Jackson have been getting away with this — cutting this funding by two million dollars, that funding by ten million dollars, etc. — while laughing cynically as local boards of supervisors, school boards and city boards scrambled to find money to make up for underfunding by the legislature and governor.
However, “the excrement hit the oscillating air current distribution device” a couple of months ago when Bryant signed the “Mississippi Budget Transparency and Simplification Act of 2016.”
This new law would sweep $188-million annually into the state’s general fund by taking it away from funding for local fire departments, police departments, public health services, etc. Mississippi statutes authorize various fees and assessments and provide that the money so collected go into special funds to be shared by local fire departments, police departments, courts, etc.
This grand scale diversion of money from special funds intended for local needs, and into the state’s general fund, was what allowed Bryant, Reeves and Gunn to “balance” the state’s budget for fiscal year 2017.
Though Bryant, Reeves and Gunn are Republicans, three other Republicans who hold statewide elective offices have been highly critical of this raid on local funds. Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman, Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney and State Treasurer Lynn Finch cried ‘foul’ as soon as Bryant signed the “budget transparency” bill.
By law, both Hoseman and Chaney are the de facto trustees for some of these special funds, and they asked Mississippi Attorney General (AG) Jim Hood, a Democrat, for a ruling. Should they obey the new “transparency” law, or should they continue to distribute the money to local fire departments, police departments, courts, etc. as they are ordered to do by other statutes?
Hood ruled earlier this month that the “transparency” act does not repeal the older statutes, which provide for the collection and distribution of the special funds. Thus, said the AG, Hoseman and Chaney do not have to comply with the “transparency” act, do not have to transfer the money to the state general fund, and may continue distributing it, as before, to local public safety agencies and so forth.
It is estimated that the attorney general’s opinion thus prevents about $70-million of the $188-million from going into the state general fund, as intended by the governor and legislature.
Adding complication and no-little amusement to this amateurish scheme to “balance” the state budget, is the fact that Reeves and Gunn have already been forced to admit that their budget estimates for FY 2017 are short by about $57-million. (They blamed the shortage on a “staff error,” causing us to wonder: whose staff was it that sneaked into Reeves’ and Gunn’s offices and screwed up their budget calculations?)
Adding the $57-million error committed by sneaky “staff members” to the $70-million Jim Hood’s ruling prevents being diverted into the general fund, means that Bryant, Reeves, and Gunn are now short $127-million of revenue in their FY 2017 budget. [We hope that some of our readers will note our uncharacteristic restraint in not thus far calling these boys: “The Three Stooges.”]
We do not know Rachael Ring, who works for the AG’s office, but we believe she got it about right when she said recently, “Eliminating special funds, while at the same time slashing our budget, is similar to a parent raiding a child’s college savings to pay for a Caribbean vacation, while promising to pay for college from an account that was overdrawn in the first place.”
While it has nothing to do with the monumental miscalculations in the FY 2017 budget, it is worth noting that Governor Bryant has called a special session of the state legislature for today. It seems the state is short of money to pay its bills for the current fiscal year, and Bryant wants authorization to take more money from the state’s “rainy day fund” to keep the store open this year.
Some hope today’s special session call will be amended to allow reconsideration of all or part of the “Mississippi Budget Transparency Act of 2016.” Don’t count on it. The boys aren’t ready yet to eat that plate of crow.
Tomorrow we will post a summary of the direct impact of the “transparency” act and other state budget cuts on those of us here in New Albany and Union County. We will report on the responses of State Representative Margaret Rogers and State Senator Nickey Browning to our questions about their positions on these matters. We will also report on the extraordinary methods by which the state legislative leadership worked themselves — and us — into this financial quagmire.