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Highest legislative priority: Pay raises for state employees

By By Amy Tuck
Dec. 12, 2001
During the last week of November, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee adopted its budget recommendation to the Legislature for fiscal year 2003.
The adoption of the recommendation marked the end of a three-month long endeavor to develop a plan to allocate this State's limited financial resources among its competing budget needs. With the State and nation coping with the effects of a national economic slowdown, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee was faced with some of the most challenging fiscal constraints it has ever dealt with.
The good news is that the committee has adopted a prudent spending plan that maintains a workable level of funding for all areas of government, but deals realistically with the reduced levels of resources anticipated to be available.
In developing its proposed budget, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee followed the recommendation of the professional Revenue Estimating Committee in projecting revenues for both the current year and fiscal year 2003. The fiscal year 2002 estimate was revised downward from 3.7 percent growth to 0.7 percent, largely due to a delayed economic recovery resulting from the September 11th attacks.
For fiscal year 2003, the Revenue Estimating Committee recommended an estimate of 4.3 percent growth, which mirrors the predictions of many national economists for an economic recovery to begin near the middle of calendar year 2002. Given the importance of the estimate, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee felt that it was important to rely upon our professional forecasters rather than to pick a number out of thin air.
But even with the projected 4.3 percent revenue growth, the available revenue for fiscal year 2003 will be $18.4 million less than the level upon which the current fiscal year 2002 appropriations were based. So the Joint Legislative Budget Committee was faced with difficult choices.
As the committee proceeded to work on the fiscal year 2003 budget, two priority goals emerged: 1) Maintaining a workable level of funding for state
governmental services despite a reduction in funds available, and 2) Providing higher compensation for the state government workforce, the service providers of the state.
In the end, the committee made the difficult choice to reallocate funds within the state budget in order to fund what it believes to be the Legislature's highest priority: higher compensation for the people who deliver the services of government to the people of Mississippi.
These people span a range of occupations: from university professor to community college instructor, from conservation officer to correctional officer, from
school bus driver to the 25,000 teachers in our public schools. Long overdue salary increases were a goal of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
This state has an investment in and a commitment to the valuable men and women who deliver the services of state government. The Committee acted to protect this investment and to honor this commitment by providing salary and benefit increases to these existing employees. Some of these employees will have worked for three years without a salary increase by the time a fiscal year 2003 budget is implemented.
In the private sector, employers do not want to lose employees in whom they have an investment. The same principle applies in state government. The taxpayers of Mississippi have an investment in a trained state government workforce and the action of this Committee will help keep experienced employees providing the services of government.
The funds earmarked for salary increases include $72.5 million to fund the second year of the five-year teacher salary package enacted in the 2000 Session. Also included is $8 million for university faculty and staff, $2.3 million for community college faculty and staff and $11.9 million for state agency employees.
In order to achieve this goal, the committee has reallocated funds in order to live within a tight budget, just as many Mississippi families are doing right now. Funds have been shifted away from less important aspects of government like automobiles, copiers and conference travel and have been redirected to the more important aspect of government: the employees who make our state government work.
This redirection of funding was achieved through targeted reductions to existing budgets, which involve reducing funding for vacant positions, reducing travel, deferring equipment purchases, and other changes. In many cases, this budget will require that agencies deliver the same services with less money.
The budget recommendation for fiscal year 2003 represents the Joint Legislative Budget Committee's best effort to help state government "live within its means" during the current economic slowdown. The budget recommendation represents a true "balanced budget," one that is balanced on existing revenues from existing revenue sources and one that includes no new taxes.
While the 2002 Legislature will certainly make changes to the proposal, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee recommendation represents an excellent starting point for crafting a final state budget for fiscal year 2003.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck presides over the Mississippi Senate. She may be reached at (601) 359-3200.