JACKSON - With the state's fiscal house in order, Republican legislative leaders are seeking to boost accountability at state agencies by introducing a performance-based budgeting plan.

The plan, dubbed "Building a Better Mississippi," was first pushed by Sen. Terry Burton (R-Newton) and Rep. Toby Barker (R-Hattiesburg), but now has the backing of House Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. The plan was announced last week.

"We are continuing the fight to make sure that every tax dollar is spent wisely and that the benefit achieved out of every tax dollar is maximized," Gunn said. "Republicans are changing the way government thinks about spending from, 'What is government buying' to 'What is government accomplishing?'"

The guidelines for each department are broken down in a 28-page document that sets goals for eight key policy areas: economic development, public safety and order, health, human services, natural resources, infrastructure, government/citizens and education (which is broken down into two sub-categories, one for public schools and one for higher education).

For the Mississippi Development Authority for example, it would mean setting a broader goal of "developing a robust state economy that provides the opportunity for productive employment for all Mississippians," and specific areas the program needs to be focusing, like net job growth, as well as the number of jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, new technology and small business growth.

For the Mississippi Department of Education, the broader goal is to prepare Mississippi's students "to either enter the labor force with an employable skill or to successfully complete a higher education program."

Distinct goals include improvements in special education, career and technical education and basic education (more specifically, student readiness, academic achievement, providing a quality learning environment, all while keeping an eye on the cost of the cost, per student, overall and to the state).

In a joint statement released from the offices of Lt. Gov. Reeves and Speaker Gunn, the plan is presented as the first significant effort to fund agency programs based on Legislature-established expectations.

"Taxpayers deserve a strong return on their investment in state government," Reeves said. "Under this plan, we'll see the results of government programs, and if they aren't working, they will be eliminated to allow for targeted investment in our priorities."

Rep. Rita Martinson (R-Madison), said she expected either merit-based or zero-based budgeting to be introduced sooner than the upcoming session, but is glad to see it is on the table, now that the rainy-day fund is on solid financial footing.

"It's a very ambitious undertaking," Martinson said. "It's asking the agencies to justify each and every request that they have, in order to prove that they need it, as well as show where the expenditures have gone in the past."

Martinson said some oversight is already in place, like the joint Senate and House committee which scrutinizes the budget each year.

"But this is different," she said. "This is starting from zero, and making sure they aren't wasting money and have what they need to meet their goals. It's a good idea from a fiscal responsibility standpoint."

The proposal to go a merit-based budget will likely be met with opposition from Democrats. A similar plan, proposed in 1994 by then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, was defeated by a Democratic legislature which argued that the process would open the door to the politicizing of state agencies.

State Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, who represents Mississippi's 21st district that encompasses parts of north Madison County, including Canton, and holds membership on eight different Senate committees, said he won't waste any time on taking Mississippi to a merit-based system in the upcoming session, which begins in January.

"When you go to that type of incentive-based budgeting, it opens the door for too much politics to come into play," Jones said. "Politics can weasel its way into anything and everything. There are better ways to hold agencies accountable, and I don't see how anything good can come from a merit-based system like the one being proposed."

Jones said he has instead set a goal for the upcoming session of securing significant pay raises for all state employees - an action he says is long overdue.

"We need to first take care of the people who take care of Mississippi on a day-to-day basis," he said. "Then I'll be willing to sit down and look at different ways we can make the departments more financially efficient."