Will Budget Hearings Reveal Detached State Government Officials?

By Keith Plunkett | September 17th, 2017 at 9:58 am

BY: Keith Plunkett / Managing Editor

Keith Plunkett is the Policy and Communications Director for the United Conservatives Fund, and the Founder and Publisher of MississippiPEP.com.

Filed Under: Budget, Contributor, Events, Feature Stories, Keith Plunkett, Mississippi, Mississippi PEP, Mississippi State House, Mississippi State Senate, MS State Government, Opinion, Philip Gunn, Politics, Spending, Tate Reeves

“The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, the public debt should be reduced and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled.”

–Ross Perot


It is often said that the best way to know what a person or organization values most is to review how they budget and spend. Budgeting requires priorities and priorities requires principle aims or purpose and “cultivates the sense of order”.

With positioning for 2019 elections beginning, the principle aim among legislators shouldn’t be assumed to be virtuous or selfless. Prioritizing at this point is just as much about elected officials telegraphing their political loyalties as covering proper expenses of state government. Suddenly, the outsized number of Mississippi state employees and knowing which government agencies employ them becomes more about their gratitude at the ballot box than the states proper management of Human Resources beyond it.

Thats why it’s highly unlikely there will be anything near the level of political showmanship that was attempted last year. In 2016, the legislative project was to find savings in state government. The 2016 budget hearings were planned and focused. House Speaker Philip Gunn said he wanted “comprehensive reform” of the piecemeal process of cutting taxes and setting state agency budgets.”

“Comprehensive reform” never materialized.

Thursday and Friday, the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee, led by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, will hear requests for funding from key agency heads. Speaker Gunn rotates on an annual basis with the lieutenant governor as chairman of the panel.

For the past couple of months, the more than 100 agencies, boards and commissions the Legislature funds each year have been developing their budget proposals to submit to the staff of the Legislative Budget Committee.

The committee will hear from some of those key agencies, such as kindergarten through 12th-grade education, Medicaid and higher education, during the two days of public hearings.

At one point, the Budget Committee hearings went on over a multiple week time period in September, but in recent years the number of meetings have been whittled down.

Still, members say the information they glean from the public meetings plays a key role in developing the budget.

After the 2016 hearings I described what I thought had to happen before the Speaker and Lt. Governor would, or could,  take the legislature down a path toward potential reform:

The hearings at the Capitol have made for some interesting theater. But if it isn’t followed up with detailed and unambiguous changes in state spending policy, and restriction of state agencies to stop the changing of program rules in order to qualify for the next available federal dollar–if it doesn’t ask and inspire every Mississippian to dig deep and find the courage to be a part of revitalizing the state starting in the communities where they live; and if it doesn’t start from the premise that the only way to correct a problem is by recognizing what the root of the problem is, then it’s nothing more than politics for the sake of politics.

Without getting serious about reforming ALL spending, ALL federal appropriation and regulation within our state boundaries, and removing as swiftly as possible ALL agency heads who refuse to get with the program, then the best these hearings will have accomplished is to have provided a few campaign managers and advertising agencies the media material they need to manage the reputations and the commercials of the next crop of candidates in 2019.

Elected officials who publicly grill state agency heads for lack of efficiency, or talk of webinars as opposed to travel, in hopes of whittling away a few tenths of a percent of savings from a fraction of a couple of percent of spending–when these same elected officials begin taking a stand against the corrupting influence of the Mississippi State Government’s decades long addiction to federal appropriations, then we’ll know we have a serious discussion on our hands.

We Need Strong Officials for Strong Reforms.

Mississippi is ranked number one in the country for dependence on federal money, and by extension the federal regulations that come with it. Mississippi residents rank 11th for dependency on federal money. These two rankings are why Mississippians didn’t see any real attempts made at reform then, and it’s why we’re not likely to see any reform in 2018 or 2019. It will take a level of selflessness we haven’t seen in public office in this state, someone willing to think about the long-term needs of the state, not the dates of the next elections.

The reason is simple. Whomever those elected officials are that might speak openly about the negative effects of state dependence on federal money would be an immediate target to big state agencies and their directors. They would be castigated for not caring about kids or for the disabled or for jobs, or whatever else a dozen or more non-profits could say about them.  Trade associations and many of the industries they represent would target those elected officials for challenge. And this isn’t even mentioning the media frenzy that would ensue.

It’s hard to see how strong reforms will ever materialize without elected legislators willing to make that type of political sacrifice, and by bringing legislation forward that would start detangling the mess of bureaucracy that plagues our state.

It would take a plan, and discipline.

As Geoff Pender wrote last week:

Lawmakers haven’t planned to fail with the state budget, but it appears they’ve failed to plan. To date massive agency budget cuts have been late and forced, with little strategy, and have affected the just and unjust alike. With budget hearings for the coming session soon to commence, perhaps lawmakers should put some thought to up-front cuts to inefficient or less needed programs.

For instance, if as Reeves and other legislative leaders have opined, there is major inefficiency or waste in transportation spending, then it’s time to quit talking about it and get cracking, especially if there’s really a couple hundred-million dollars or more being frittered away. Recently legislative leaders have talked as if every third state agency is fleecing taxpayers. If so, get on ’em.

But, it’s also a much deeper subject ripe with potential to educate the public that Legislative leaders can’t bring themselves to do, a heck of a stage to explain how state budgeting would work better if Mississippians tried to know and understand the priorities.

The Optimal Size And Scope

Gerald Scully was an economist known for being among the first to apply complicated statistical analysis to Major League Baseball. Over his adult life Scully taught at Ohio University, Southern Illinois University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Dallas. He wrote on many economic issues, including the relationship between government spending and economic growth.

Scully pioneered a field of economics focused on studying the optimal size of government. He taught that government spending can contribute to economic growth – but only up to a point, and only if the spending is focused on core activities of government such as improvement of emergency first response, like fire protection and law enforcement; and essential infrastructure such as bridges, dams and roadways. In other words, there are things that government does that government must do and do well. But there are limits.

This is but one example of a deep level approach to economic research that has proven the conservative position that as government is minimized to its core function, freedom is increased and innovation provides productive results. Even government half-measures introduce whole problems. It’s important to stay in the correct lane. Why isn’t this the first thing falling off the lips of every Republican running for office? Why isn’t Scully’s method being applied to every budgetary review?

Breeding Weakness, Wasting Money, Perpetuating Problems

It’s clear that the politicians presiding over “hearings” have their own interests in mind to publicly position themselves for future political success, or to advocate for the lobbyists or trade organizations of which elected officials “authority” on a given committee affords opportunities to strong-arm benefits out of lucrative government contracts with the corresponding agency. At any rate, it is at best questionable that any of this public performance would be considered in the interest of the taxpayer and the general citizen.

Lawmakers are overwhelmed by spending requests, but they rarely hear anything from the side of those who want spending cuts and those who have been served by the agency. Those positions simply aren’t being represented consistently in Mississippi Legislative Hearings.

Legislative hearings more often than not set aside the truly substantive discussion of an agencies role in breeding weaknesses opting for the easier subdued, bread-crumbs of inefficiency. A government agency’s cause is to show the existence of complications and needs over which they have been given dominion to administer corrective measures.

Unfortunately none of our legislators scratch beneath the surface, or try to connect the dots to show the truth of how bureaucracy wastes money, perpetuates problems by restricting others outside of government from resolving them, and burdens producers with more and more regulation in the process.

Mississippi Republican elected officials have decidedly slowed their approach. During the past year of spending cuts, what appears to have been completely missed is the huge opportunity for public discussion about what state government ought NOT to be doing to begin with.