Democrats are pretty sure they'll be shut out of Tuesday's special session to deal with a budget shortfall much as they were during the past regular session. And they’re afraid that will put BP money at risk.
Gov. Phil Bryant called the special session Monday for a single purpose, to authorize him to take money from the state’s rainy day fund and put it in the general fund to cover a shortfall of about $75 million in the more than $6 billion budget. Through the end of May, tax collections had run more than $200 million short of expectations and Bryant had dipped into the rainy day fund and had ordered two rounds of budget cuts to make up the difference.
House Democratic leader David Baria of Bay St. Louis said Democrats weren’t asked for ideas about how to make up the difference nor were they involved in discussions that led to next year’s budget for the fiscal year that starts Friday. That budget, Baria said, has even more problems than the current one.
“It was such a closed group with very little participation from Republicans or Democrats that nobody knew what was going on until the bill came to the floor,” he said. “And I think everyone would agree the fiscal year ’16-’17 is going to be worse. It is based on this year’s estimate plus anticipated growth. If this year’s are off, then next year’s have to be presumed to be off.”
Baria would rather have a longer session to deal with the problems with next budget as well. An accounting error uncovered after the budget was passed means revenue projections are off by at least $56 million from the outset.
Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood has said lawmakers can’t legally take $72 million from various trust funds as they had planned. That would bring the initial shortfall to $128 million.
The BP factor
Baria said that shortfall will have upstate lawmakers looking at the BP settlement, which was $150 million in 2016, to plug holes in the fiscal year ’17 budget.
“This is the group that was always griping about using one-time money to make the budget balance,” he said.
The state also has $364 million in its rainy day fund, accordiing to House Speaker Phil Gunn.
“How will they make up the difference?” Baria asked. “There’s only one way to do it. They’re going to look at BP funds. They’ll either have to do rainy day funds or BP funds.”
Baria also said he was afraid that budget cuts to various agencies would affect the state’s ability to deal with hurricanes, public health crises and the mentally ill.
MEMA says its OK
Lee Smithson, who took over at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency just as the budget crisis began to build, said he expects to be able to respond to weather emergencies despite a $600,000 cut that reduced his budget from $3.8 million to $3.2 million for next year. He said no employees will be laid off.
“We still have the capability to respond,” he said. “I will never sacrifice the ability to respond.”
He said he will have to make cuts in the office that deals with damage assessments after a disaster. More of that will be up to the individual counties, he said. That’s a much softer position than in April when he told Mississippi Today: “There’s no way that I can respond to another Katrina, 80 out of 82 counties made federal disaster declarations. If we had not even another Katrina, if we had another Georges, I can’t be responsive to the needs of the people because my budget has been cut.”
“We’re having to get pretty innovative,” he said Monday.
He said he is trying to set up a group of disaster reservists, similar to the National Guard. And he’s managed to save money and replace antiquated satellite phones. He said he found a carrier for a base price of $25,000 as opposed to the $35,000 he had been paying. And the old phones began incurring a $1.25 a minute charge “as soon as they were fired up.” The new phones come with 100 free minutes and a charge of $1.15 a minute after that.