JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi legislative leaders are holding a single day of hearings to start considering state agencies' spending requests for the 2021 budget year, which begins July 1.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee meets Friday at the Woolfolk state office building, near the Capitol. The 14 members are scheduled to hear from education officials and leaders of the Division of Medicaid, the state Supreme Court and the departments of public safety and wildlife, fisheries and parks.
Committee members are not scheduled to hear from the Department of Corrections, where leaders have said for years that they need more money to increase the pay for prison guards.
They also are not hearing from the Department of Mental Health. A federal judge said Sept. 3 that he would appoint an expert to oversee Mississippi's mental health system because the state is doing too little to serve people outside the confinement of mental hospitals.
The Legislative Budget Office posts spending requests online. Agencies are required to file multiple documents, and sorting through them to get a comprehensive picture is time-consuming.
The Budget Committee usually makes a first set of spending recommendations, and members typically oppose many requests from agencies. That information is sent to the full Legislature, and all 52 senators and 122 House members will get to vote on final budget proposals during the spring.
All of the legislative seats are up for election in November, though, and it's unclear how much deference the incoming lawmakers will give the first set of budget recommendations from a committee that includes people leaving office.
The Department of Corrections is again asking lawmakers to fund pay raises for prison guards. In response to questions from The Associated Press, department spokeswoman Grace Fisher said the average starting salary for those jobs is $25,650. Corrections Commissioner Pelicia M. Hall wants to increase that to $30,370, the average starting salary for correctional officers in the four states surrounding Mississippi.
Hall is also asking lawmakers to authorize and pay for 800 additional employees at the three largest state prisons — the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and South Mississippi Correctional Institution.
"These additional positions will better allow the MDOC to have the correctional staff necessary for adequate security coverage for the inmate population in Institutions," Fisher said.
The three prisons, collectively, are authorized to have 1,874 employees, although Fisher said 581 of those jobs are vacant.