View Full Version : Article: Shortfall may spur job cuts in Miss.

12-12-2004, 10:57 AM

December 12, 2004

By John Fuquay

The omen of a 20 percent budget shortfall and little support for new taxes could force lawmakers to walk a fine line between cutting state jobs and preserving social programs that serve about one of every four Mississippi residents.

While fewer state employees could mean slower tax refunds and longer lines for driver's license renewals, trimming the state work force could be detrimental for people relying on the state for health care and other essential services.

"If we lose personnel, we have to reduce the number of persons that we serve," said Randy Hendrix, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

Hendrix, whose agency serves 80,000 patients and clients in hospitals and group homes across the state, said facility licenses are tied to staff. Reducing staff would mean closing hospital beds. He said he's already talked to Senate and House leaders about keeping his budget intact.

"We talked about trying to take care of people with mental retardation. I think they realize that without us, they'd have no place to go," he said.

In terms of work force, Mental Health is the state's largest agency. Its 8,931 employees at the close of last month was 28 percent of the state's 31,943 employees. The agency's work force has grown 40 percent in 10 years due to six new facilities that Hendrix said were intended to provide mentally ill patients an alternative to jail.

The next largest agency, the Department of Transportation, had 3,361 employees. MDOT, however, receives none of its funding from the $3.6 billion, tax-supported general fund, which is under the chopping block.

Gov. Haley Barbour is scheduled to present his budget Tuesday, and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee will reveal its spending plan Wednesday.

Last session, Barbour asked lawmakers to give him control of the executive branch agencies, including the Department of Human Services, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Corrections. At the time, he said streamlining would save $25 million. Lawmakers rejected the full proposal, but did remove parts of MDOC from the Personnel Board. Since then, 185 positions have been eliminated

"The agencies having to operate under Personnel Board proscriptions make it very difficult for executive directors to manage efficiently," said John Arledge, Barbour's deputy chief of staff.

Sonya Hand, who recently lost her job as a corrections officer, said a group of the terminated MDOC employees has formed a support group and is considering a lawsuit against the state.

"We're trying to determine if it was a legal move. You're telling us you don't have money, but you're hiring people for less money," Hand said. "You're getting rid of seniority."

Officials have said little about their budget plans but most agree the gap between next year's projected costs and expenses is at least $600 million. Using work force reductions to close the gap would mean cutting 257 jobs for every $10 million in savings, based on a worker earning $39,000 in annual salary and benefits.

"I hope we don't have any layoffs, but things are pretty tough," House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said.

McCoy said positions dealing with public health would be the last to be cut.

"Whether it be doctors or nurses or therapists, those are essential," he said. "We'd look at positions most important to public health. That's what government is all about, protecting lives and property of citizens."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, has emphatically ruled out tax or fee increases to balance the budget. Instead, he said agencies will need to cut staffs to affordable levels, yet avoid drastic cuts in services.

"The budget won't be put together by arbitrarily looking at numbers and cutting," Gordon said. "Medicaid drives the budget, and we're going to fund Medicaid. These people are vulnerable. We're not going to jeopardize someone by cutting that deep."

Medicaid, while not among the largest agencies in staff, has one of the larger general fund budgets. Medicaid Director Dr. Warren Jones is seeking a $522 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But Medicaid cuts in the current budget originally planned to end coverage for 50,000 beneficiaries sent tremors across the state that have yet to be calmed.

"I'd hope the departments would not be the ones who make the decisions on who needs to go and who needs to stay," said Mary Troupe, executive director for the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities. "They need input from legislators and advocacy groups before they do anything drastic."

The Medicaid cuts were delayed at least until next month, and the agency was authorized to nearly double its work force by hiring more eligibility workers. But other agencies have cut staff in previous years and have few remaining options for a new round of cuts.

"We've managed in the last three years, even in the face of budget cuts, to deliver services in the field and make cuts administratively," said Danny Miller, deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Health.

Miller said his agency rid itself of duplicated software and phone lines, eliminated unneeded insurance and cell phones, consolidated office space and took other measures to save $880,000 annually. Its work force also has shrunk. The agency employed 2,792 workers 10 years ago and 2,240 at the end of last month a 19 percent reduction. The Department of Human Services also has shrunk. The agency had 3,641 workers at the end of November 1994 and 3,133 a month ago.

"One of the things we look at is client services," said state Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, a member of both the Appropriations Committee and Joint Legislative Budget Committee. "Most agencies try to cut administrative costs and keep services to their clients or patients. ... We don't want to get to the point where we hurt people."