This week several articles have been written and comments made suggesting the legislature has done a disservice to the state by ignoring the needs of the Department of Mental Health. My colleagues and I are fully aware of the funding needs of this agency and to say we have been negligent in the appropriations process could not be further from the truth.

Since I became Chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee in 2012, we have increased state support spending for the Department of Mental Health by more than $17 million. Most of this increase has been used to improve the care provided in the state’s community based programs.

In this coming fiscal year’s budget, which begins on July 1, Mental Health will in fact have a decrease in its state support revenue of $4.2 million. However, what has not been reported clearly is that the agency will reduce its interagency fees to be paid by $5.6 million. These are fees paid to other state agencies for costs such as rent, legal fees, and technology support that have now been eliminated as part of their budget. The net effect is that Mental Health will have a net increase in funding of $1.4 million. Thus a claim that programs and services will be drastically eliminated must be based on some other reason we are not aware of.

For future budgets, we might suggest using the line-item method in drafting the agency’s appropriation bill. In this method, the legislature is very specific in its funding of each category instead of giving a lump sum for the agency to spend at its discretion. If we had done so this tight budget year, one can be assured the following expenditures for Mental Health, which were included in their request, would not be included:

$101,739 for Out of State travel
$1,399,516 for Office Furniture
$114,273 for “food for business meetings”
$4,121,002 in spending on a “Procurement Card”, which is not itemized in their budget

Lastly, like many other agencies, the Department of Mental Health utilizes contract workers. In some instances, this can be a cost effective way to fill gaps in lieu of hiring a full time employee. However, it seems that when an agency has more than 500 contract workers, it’s a bit much and thus blocks many individuals seeking full time employment with the agency.

The budget for the State of Mississippi cannot be viewed through a singular lens by neither the legislature nor the public. There are many agencies providing valuable services to the citizens of this state, many funded at a level below what we would like. We also believe that each agency is sincere in their requests for funding as they and their advocates fight for their share of the pie. The truth of the matter is though that each agency and each advocate is not so concerned about funding levels at other agencies. However, it is our job in appropriations to be concerned with every agency and the mission with which they are charged. The Attorney General claimed we are being negligent with the level we have funded Mental Health. I would ask him as I asked everyone this year seeking a funding increase for their agency: Whose budget do we cut further to get you to where you want your agency’s budget to be? K-12? Community colleges? Institutions of Higher Learning? Medicaid? Or perhaps not fully fund the new Family and Children’s Services? During the session we heard no such recommendation, from the Attorney General or others, to reduce their own budget by $4 million and send it to Mental Health.

Chairman Buck Clarke