Scary Budget; Timid Reforms

My state employee friend Janet is scared…along with thousands more. She says they “flinch” every time the Governor mentions cuts, consolidation, or merger.

Families with relatives in nursing homes or drawing Medicaid, teachers with laid off spouses, furloughed Jackson State employees, and others brace for the upcoming legislative session.

How bad is it?

It would take a 25% salary cut for every state-funded teacher, professor, and employee to lift the state out of its two-year budget hole; or, a 3% sales tax hike.

Why is it so bad?

Our state budget process is broken.

Well, Janet and colleagues know that. Lt. Governor Phil Bryant’s Commission for a New Mississippi confirmed it last week, however, and called for reform.

FACTOIDS: Since 1955, the Mississippi Legislature has taken near total control of the budget process. More money would be available to cover shortfalls if the Legislature had not invaded the Tobacco Trust Fund and/or if the Rainy Day Fund were larger.

Bryant’s Commission bases its reform on the “performance-based budget” model Texas began using in 1991. According to Texas, state government functions better and is successfully weathering the economic downturn.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

But, performance-based budgeting is not simple. Every two years, Texas measures over 8,900 things related to its “strategic plan” to see how it’s performing, then analyzes and transforms these findings into recommendations for future spending. The Commission says this process can fix Mississippi’s budget upheavals.

Unfortunately, the Commission spurns much of what makes the Texas system work.

Texas uses a balanced approach. Budget power is split between the Legislature and the Executive Branch. The State Comptroller sets the revenue limit for the budget. The Governor is responsible for the priority-setting strategic plan Vision Texas that guides performance. The Legislature establishes outcomes it will measure. The Governor’s Center for Management Development trains senior and middle level managers. The State Auditor measures performance. The Legislature bases appropriations on performance. The Governor has a real line item veto.

No such balance appears in Commission recommendations for Mississippi.

As recommended, power would reside totally with the same Legislature that broke the State…I mean the current budget process. A new Legislative Budget and Accountability Office, a combination of the Legislature’s PEER Committee and Budget Office, will wield this power.

I was told the Commission left out the “balance of power” and “checks and balances” Texas uses for fear the Legislature would not support it. Even the Legislature’s PEER Committee was not so timid in its 2008 report Enterprise Mississippi: A Vision for State Government.

Read the Commission and PEER Committee reports. They offer many good ideas.

However, our history shows budget discipline comes more from the Executive Branch than the Legislature (especially when put in the Constitution as Texas did). Without Executive Branch participation in the budget process, I doubt strategies, outcomes, measures, and analysis will accomplish much – like more complex rules for inmates probably wouldn’t make prisons run better.

Of course, none of this brings relief to Janet and her colleagues.

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