JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi agency directors are requesting more money to maintain public buildings, defend the state in lawsuits and hire investigators to find tax cheaters.
Directors presented wish lists Friday to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which is starting to plan spending for the year that begins July 1. State tax collections have fallen millions of dollars short of expectations the first three months of the current budget year, and Gov. Phil Bryant has already ordered most agencies to cut spending.
Money is expected to be tight again in the coming year, and state economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers Friday that he expects “continued modest growth” in Mississippi’s economy. As he has many times, Webb said Mississippi’s long-term prospects are hindered by workers who are less educated and less healthy than people in many other states.
“I think that dampens our potential for growth,” Webb said.
Department of Finance and Administration Director Laura Jackson said the state should spend cash for maintenance expenses such as repairing roofs and replacing chillers for air conditioning systems. Long-term borrowing should be reserved for bigger projects with longer lifespans, she said. Maintenance money has been “inadequate to cover needs” the past couple of years, she said, and the state needs to take care of its property just as people need to take care of their own homes.
“We have deferred the maintenance … and we’re beginning to feel the effects of that,” Jackson said.
She also said the state will need to spend about $200,000 a month for utilities, security, custodial services and other maintenance for the state history and civil rights museums that are being built a few blocks from the state Capitol and are scheduled to open in December 2017. The construction contractor is scheduled to turn control of the buildings over to the state in the spring, and those expenses will begin then.
Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson said tax collections should improve if his agency can hire more auditors and another criminal investigator to find people skipping out on taxes or filing false returns. He said investigators were able to uncover about $30 million in and stop refund checks before they were sent to people filing fraudulent returns.
Attorney General Jim Hood said Mississippi faces continuing expenses over a foster care lawsuit filed years ago and a lawsuit over mental health services that was filed this year.
Hood said he was depositing nearly $34 million into the state treasury Friday from lawsuit awards. About $26 million of it came from a lawsuit in which a judge found that a pharmaceutical company had overcharged the Mississippi Medicaid program for prescription drugs.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .