Mississippi agencies and colleges begin budget requests for 2016 fiscal year

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps requests an $8.2 million increase for prisons during the agency's budget request for the state fiscal year 2016 at a hearing Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in Jackson, Miss. The biggest portion of that increase, $5.8 million, would help pay for four privately run prisons. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps requests an $8.2 million increase for prisons during the agency’s budget request for the state fiscal year 2016 at a hearing Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in Jackson, Miss. The biggest portion of that increase, $5.8 million, would help pay for four privately run prisons. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Leaders of Mississippi government agencies are appearing before lawmakers this week to request money for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1.

Among those seeking an increase in funding are three big departments: Health, Human Services and Corrections.

Rickey Berry, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services asks lawmakers to hold their questions until they listen to his budget request presentation for the state fiscal year 2016 Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in Jackson, Miss. Berry addressed various questions during the presentation. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Rickey Berry, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services asks lawmakers to hold their questions until they listen to his budget request presentation for the state fiscal year 2016 Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in Jackson, Miss. Berry addressed various questions during the presentation. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Dr. Mary Currier, the state health officer, told lawmakers Tuesday that she is requesting an additional $27.2 million for the Department of Health. That includes money for the state health laboratory and for efforts to reduce infant mortality. Mississippi has long had one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the nation.

“There are things we can do about it,” Currier said.

Among other things, she said, the state can help provide medical services for pregnant women who are not covered by private or government-sponsored insurance. Currier is requesting $1 million for that, from a state budget that will top $6 billion.

She also said most hospitals that deliver babies in Mississippi have set policies to discourage elective early births that are not medically necessary. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks, and Currier said the state is seeing a decrease in elective births that are done at 37 or 38 weeks.

Department of Human Services director Rickey Berry said the state needs to spend an additional $12 million to meet requirements of a foster-care lawsuit. Mississippi has seen an increase of 450 children in foster care in the past year, Berry said. The increase has been especially steep in coastal counties, he said, and many of the children are being put into foster care because of drug use by their biological parents.

Berry also said DHS has 820 social workers on the payroll, but faces 148 vacancies for the jobs.

“That is a high-turnover, high-stress occupation,” he said.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps is requesting an $8.2 million increase for prisons. The biggest portion of that, $5.8 million, would help pay for four privately run prisons.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee started a series of hearings Tuesday at the Woolfolk state office building near the Capitol. The hearings run through Friday, and they’re open to the public.

The current chairman of the committee, House Speaker Philip Gunn, said most agencies are making reasonable budget requests.

“They understand that the intent of this committee is to be conservative in our spending,” Gunn, R-Clinton, said after the hearing.

The Republican-controlled Budget Committee and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will release separate budget recommendations in December. The election-year legislative session begins in January. If lawmakers stay on schedule, they will adopt a budget by early April.

Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board discusses his agency's budget request for the state fiscal year 2016 at a hearing, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board discusses his agency’s budget request for the state fiscal year 2016 at a hearing, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The two systems that run Mississippi’s public universities and community colleges each want lawmakers to increase their budgets by more than $75 million, arguing more state spending on higher education will help residents earn higher incomes and bolster the future of the state.

State agencies are presenting requests to the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee this week, setting the stage for negotiations that won’t intensify until the 2015 Legislature begins. The lawmakers will write a budget for the fiscal year that begins next July.

Looming over both presentations, though, were legal efforts to force the Legislature to meet its funding promises to K-12 education. Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asked officials from both higher education systems how they would cope if lawmakers took $312 million from their budgets to fully fund the K-12 formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Both said cuts to shift money to MAEP would be catastrophic.

“Obviously that would have a devastating effect,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the state Community College Board.

“I can’t even answer that,” said Higher Education Chancellor Hank Bounds. “Tuition won’t do it. Nothing would do it.”

The eight public universities, which received a $750 million appropriation this year asked for an additional $76.5 million. Of that amount, $7.6 million is needed to cover shortfalls next year in financial aid programs lawmakers have mandated, Bounds said. Another $17 million would go to the University of Mississippi Medical Center

Bounds argues Mississippi must keep investing in higher education if it wants to stop falling behind in the share of its residents who are college educated. College Board projections show Mississippi would have to almost quadruple the number of degrees awarded if it wanted to equal the national average of people with bachelor’s degrees by 2025.

“We’re 20 years behind in educational attainment,” Bounds said. “We are making progress, but we’re losing ground because others are moving ahead faster than we are.”

The state’s 15 community colleges asked for a total increase of $79.1 million over this year’s appropriation of $251.7 million. Clark said the money would allow the independently governed colleges to expand workforce training and improve faculty salaries.

In 2007, the Legislature passed legislation requiring that it fund the colleges at a point halfway between K-12 and universities, on a per student basis. To do so, lawmakers would have to raise per-student funding from $3,432 per year to $5,562, costing $140 million. Clark asked for half that amount in the 2016 budget.

“Midlevel funding has exactly the same legal status as MAEP,” Clark said. “We’re asking you to move the needle on that and to do it this year.”

Another $9 million would be specifically earmarked for a dropout recovery initiative, to help high school dropouts earn a high school equivalency diploma and then learn job skills.

“There are tens of thousands of disenfranchised citizens of Mississippi that can become part of the solution where the workforce development is concerned if we can only deliver some contemporary job skills to them,” said Scott Elliott, president of Meridian Community College.