Who should make midyear cuts?

A lawsuit filed by a pair of Democratic lawmakers challenging Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s authority to make midyear budget cuts when revenues are coming in below expectations is being portrayed as a partisan spat.

To do so ignores the history of the law, enacted in the mid-1980s when all of state government was dominated by Democrats.

Back then, after the state Supreme Court ruled — in response to a lawsuit filed by then-Attorney General Bill Allain — that legislators could not serve on executive branch boards and commissions, the Legislature decided to give the governor the responsibility and power to make sure the state adhered to its constitutional requirement to have a balanced budget. Lawmakers over the years tweaked the law, putting parameters on how the governor implemented such cuts. For example, no agency can be cut more than 5 percent unless all agencies have been cut at least 5 percent.

Now, argue Sen. John Horhn and Rep. Bryant Clark, neither of whom were in the Legislature at the time the original statute was enacted, the law is unconstitutional because it violates the separation-of-powers doctrine. It gives to the executive branch, they say, the power of deciding how much money government agencies receive, a power that is supposed to reside solely with the Legislature. Even if a previous Legislature willingly ceded this power to the executive branch, it was illegal to do so, they say.

That argument was rejected in Hinds County Chancery Court, and this week both sides made their case to the state Supreme Court, which is considering the appeal.

If the suit is successful, it is hard to see how the result would work very well practically. The plaintiffs say that when money is running short, the governor could either dip into the state’s “rainy day” fund and/or call lawmakers into special session to reduce appropriations.

Governors, including Bryant, have regularly dipped into reserves to cover shortfalls, so that’s not new. But that recourse alone is not usually sufficient.

The prospect of having regular special sessions to make midyear cuts (in some years, governors have had to pare budgets two or three times to balance the books) is not attractive. One can envision such extra sessions dragging on for days, creating a bigger budget hole due to the additional expense of the sessions.

From a strictly dollars-and-cents perspective, it’s counterproductive to run up short-term costs in the process of trying to reduce short-term expenses.

The Supreme Court will have to sort out the constitutionality question, but from a practical perspective, the current system seems preferable.