Here and There

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mississippi’s fiscal prudency brought to you by the voters of 2011

*First appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Last week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) adopted a budget recommendation for the upcoming fiscal year which begins on July 1, 2015. The legislative budget recommendation (LBR) provides a starting point for lawmakers to use when contemplating budget priorities in the 2015 regular session.

As is typical this time of year, I’ve seen some left-leaning types complain about the recommendation. It shortchanges (fill in the blank with your favorite state agency); it saves too much money; it doesn’t spend enough money; etc.

If you look closely, those are the same dangerous arguments which voters handily repudiated in 2011.

Prior to the last statewide election cycle in which Republicans won majorities in the House of Representatives, Senate, and Governor’s Office, the budget writing committee included mostly Democrats. As a result, the budget recommendation reflected irresponsible fiscal practices, such as including one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.

The problem (well, one of…) with this approach is that it automatically creates a funding shortfall the next year, which in turn creates one the next year, and so on. Imagine a cascading funding gap. That’s not a phrase associated with sound budgeting principles.

With Republicans in charge, that’s no longer the case. The JLBC, led by Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Governor Tate Reeves along with appropriations chairmen Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. Herb Frierson, has put a stop to spending non-recurring revenue on recurring expenses. To you, the taxpayer, this sounds very logical, even common sensical. But it took years of Republicans fighting the status quo to achieve fiscal prudency – and it was ultimately only made possible by the majority of Mississippians who voted for financial conservatism in 2011.

Today, the state’s rainy day fund is filled to its statutory amount, which means Mississippi is on solid footing should we be forced to endure another economic downturn. Saving for the future is important because it lessens the risk that budgets – including education – will be cut during periods of revenue shortfall.

The legislative budget recommendation maintains a full rainy day fund, yet Democrats have cried foul. They claim the LBR stashes away some $622 million in this reserve fund, but that’s just plain wrong. The rainy day fund balance is approximately $393 million, and the remaining unallocated funds will be utilized during the 2015 session for capital projects, education, and other needs.

As we approach 2015, it’s not surprising to see some Democrats attack Republican successes. They’re mad as heck Republicans delivered on their promises to get the state’s fiscal house in order without jeopardizing state priorities.

Consider the following: The Republicans quit spending one-time money. Promise made; promise kept. The Republicans filled the state’s rainy day fund in order to be able to weather unexpected downturns in the economy. Promise made; promise kept. The Republicans even – gasp – increased funding for education! Promise made; promise kept.

Let’s talk about education. For years, Democrats and other like-minded organizations have tried their hardest to make this a wedge issue with voters by making outrageous claims: Republicans hate children. Republicans hate teachers. Republicans hate math and science and rulers and calculators.

Bah-humbug.

Republicans championed and passed a meaningful charter school law to ensure the state’s children have every opportunity to get a quality education. There is only one reason to pass a charter law in any state: To provide more opportunity for children.

Republicans championed and passed a teacher pay raise. By the start of the next fiscal year, every single teacher in Mississippi will be making $3,500 more. As Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves likes to say, Mississippi is “now a leader and not a laggard in teacher pay.”

The Republican-majority budget committee recommended a $32.1 million increase to the Miss. Adequate Education Program, but that’s not all. Legislative leaders have indicated a willingness to increase education spending above this amount when final revenue numbers are determined in the spring.

Over the past three years, the Republican-majority Legislature has increased education spending by a quarter of a billion dollars, or roughly $245 million. These increases have come at a time when many agencies of government haven’t yet seen their budgets rebound from the Great Recession.

That being said, it’s not enough to simply spend more money on education. We must demand results. Too often, the litmus test for support of education is how much money policymakers are willing to spend – with little to no regard of educational outcomes. This is both intellectually dishonest and harmful to those who are working to improve educational quality in a fiscally responsible manner.

In short, Republicans have delivered on their budgetary promises, leading to greater financial stability for the state of Mississippi. As they say, elections have consequences, and voters showed their wisdom by electing budget-minded leaders to office in 2011.

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