Budget: Not mysterious, but very, very real

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 6, 2009

There are more zeroes on $6 billion than on $60,000, but otherwise there’s not a lot of difference between how Mississippi operates and how a typical family operates.

A husband and wife will have rent or mortgage payments, insurance, car payments, utility and fuel costs, food, taxes and assorted other expenses chipping away at their income each month. If one of the household’s earners loses income through a reduction in hours, a layoff, illness or some other interruption in the cash flow, something has to give.

Mississippi is in the same situation.

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Each year, forecasters make their best guess at what the state’s income will be. Legislators, in turn, decide how to allocate the money. In reality, the allocations — to schools, medical programs, universities, prisons, law enforcements and hundreds of other niche purposes — are little more than promises. If the state doesn’t get the money it expects, something has to give.

Thursday, Gov. Haley Barbour announced a second round of cuts in amounts the state will be able to provide to its operational entities. We’re only five months into the budget year, but in November, Mississippi’s tax collections fell short of expectations for the 15th month in a row.

In September, Barbour, as directed by statute, cut about $172 million out of the nearly $6 billion promised to agencies. Everyone knew there was more to come. Unlike the federal government, the state can’t print money and so far we are truly blessed that our state, unlike California, has not resorted to issuing IOU notes.

Too many people think there’s something mysterious or complicated about government budgets. Politicians do have their tricks and a gift for doublespeak, but at the core of money matters there’s nothing really complicated. We can blame Barbour, blame lawmakers, blame income forecasters — but none of it will make any difference.

Like a family that experiences “more month than money,” Mississippi, after years and years of vast expansions in available cash, is having a down year. It’s serious. It’s bad and might get worse. But we just have to deal with it.