By EMILY W. PETTUS
JACKSON — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant says he wants lawmakers to adopt a “Smart Budget Act” this term, requiring state agencies to provide more detailed information about how they intend to spend taxpayers’ money and how they will meet specific goals.
He points to Texas as an example of what he’d like to see Mississippi do.
Two decades ago, the Lone Star State adopted a performance-based budget system, which requires state agencies to provide details about what they plan to accomplish. Decrease the high school dropout rate? Move more people into, or out of, certain types of health facilities? Those goals are written into appropriations bills. That level of micromanagement is not happening now in Mississippi.
Some lawmakers have groused about Bryant’s calling his proposal a “Smart Budget Act.” Who could be against that, after all?
And the name begs the question: Is Mississippi using a dumb budget system now?
Mississippi has used a “performance-lite” budget system since the mid-1990s, after then-Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs took a busload of legislators to Texas to study its system. While Mississippi requires agencies to set long-term goals, it stops short of attaching certain levels of funding to certain goals.
Mike Morrissey, senior adviser to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, traveled to Jackson last month to talk to Mississippi’s current lawmakers about his state’s move to performance-based budgeting. Texas started the process in 1991 and wrote its first budget under the more detailed system in 1993. Texas has two-year budgets and Mississippi has single-year budgets, but Morrissey said the Texas model can be adjusted to work in other states.
“I think that our system has done what it was designed to do, which was to provide more information with an eye toward increased transparency and thereby greater accountability,” Morrissey said. “The biggest challenge anybody has trying to write a budget is to adequately explain what the money is going to be used for and to set the expectations about which it will be spent. And so we tried to put in place a system that said, ‘Here are the expectations.’”
The new chairman of the Mississippi House Appropriations Committee, Republican Herb Frierson of Poplarville, said if Mississippi moves more toward a Texas system, it won’t be fast or easy. He said there are big challenges, including deciding what happens to agencies if they don’t meet their goals.
“It may be they need more money. It may be they need more personnel. It may be that they’re just incompetent,” Frierson said. “This is going to identify — hopefully, that’s the goal — that it identifies what that problem is there and we can address it. Doesn’t mean you can solve it, you know? If it’s more money in year like this, it wouldn’t be much we can do to help.”
Republican Sen. Terry Burton of Newton has long been one of the top money minders in the Mississippi Capitol. He served the past eight years on the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which holds public hearings each fall to listen to presentations from state agencies. He’s now vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“With some tweaks, we could actually be more aggressive in our accountability requests of the agencies by using what we have in place right now,” Burton said.
He said Mississippi’s current budget system is not broken.
“We’re not in the red. We have money in the bank, we have funds that give us money that we have access to, to meet our rainy-day fund needs. So, no, our budget system’s not broken,” Burton said. “But nothing’s perfect, and I’m always open to suggestions of how we can make it better.”