More money sought for health, human services and prisons as Miss. starts FY16 budget planning



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JACKSON, Mississippi — Leaders of Mississippi government agencies are appearing before lawmakers this week to request money for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1.

Among those seeking an increase in funding are three big departments: Health, Human Services and Corrections.

Dr. Mary Currier, the state health officer, told lawmakers Tuesday that she is requesting an additional $27.2 million for the Department of Health. That includes money for the state health laboratory and for efforts to reduce infant mortality. Mississippi has long had one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the nation.

"There are things we can do about it," Currier said.

Among other things, she said, the state can help provide medical services for pregnant women who are not covered by private or government-sponsored insurance. Currier is requesting $1 million for that, from a state budget that will top $6 billion.

She also said most hospitals that deliver babies in Mississippi have set policies to discourage elective early births that are not medically necessary. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks, and Currier said the state is seeing a decrease in elective births that are done at 37 or 38 weeks.

Department of Human Services director Rickey Berry said the state needs to spend an additional $12 million to meet requirements of a foster-care lawsuit. Mississippi has seen an increase of 450 children in foster care in the past year, Berry said. The increase has been especially steep in coastal counties, he said, and many of the children are being put into foster care because of drug use by their biological parents.

Berry also said DHS has 820 social workers on the payroll, but faces 148 vacancies for the jobs.

"That is a high-turnover, high-stress occupation," he said.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps is requesting an $8.2 million increase for prisons. The biggest portion of that, $5.8 million, would help pay for four privately run prisons.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee started a series of hearings Tuesday at the Woolfolk state office building near the Capitol. The hearings run through Friday, and they're open to the public.

The current chairman of the committee, House Speaker Philip Gunn, said most agencies are making reasonable budget requests.

"They understand that the intent of this committee is to be conservative in our spending," Gunn, R-Clinton, said after the hearing.

The Republican-controlled Budget Committee and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will release separate budget recommendations in December. The election-year legislative session begins in January. If lawmakers stay on schedule, they will adopt a budget by early April.

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Online: Mississippi budget hearing schedule: http://1.usa.gov/1uWOpiP

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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