Popular proposals not always prudent ones

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 30, 2006

Last week’s conviction in the failed beef plant fiasco offersmore evidence of the problems with the Legislature’s recent “if itlooks good and sounds good, do it” approach to government.

The idea of the beef plant’s economic development benefits,including 400 jobs, probably sounded good back when lawmakers wereconsidering a $35 million state-backed loan and other funding.However, following the plant’s closure after only three months inoperation, the state was on the hook for $55 million in loan costsand other expenses.

State Auditor Phil Bryant cited ”well-intentioned butill-conceived legislation” as one of many reasons for the plant’sfailure. That means it may have sounded like a good idea, butsomebody didn’t think it through.

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The Legislature’s at it again this year with the controversialcigarette tax hike-grocery sales tax reduction measure and somelawmakers’ support of the north Mississippi “Wellspring” industrialland purchase proposal. Both are well-intentioned proposals, butwith potentially unforeseen consequences.

Gov. Haley Barbour, who has vetoed the tax bill, and Lt. Gov.Amy Tuck, who wants to override the governor’s action, have trottedout competing figures about the legislation’s impact on cities fromlost tax revenue.

In the politically charged debate, can either set of numbersreally be trusted? More time is needed before a measure of thismagnitude becomes law.

Barbour and Tuck, with an ally in House Speaker Billy McCoy, arealso on opposite sides of the fence over Wellspring.

As part of the project, the state has been asked to contribute$14 million in bonds for an industrial land purchase – even thoughno business or industry has committed to the site. Under the”sounds good” banner, the north Mississippi project can besupported as economic development.

But what happens the next time when, say, a south Mississippicommunity asks the state to participate in a similar economicdevelopment project? The Legislature would be hypocritical inturning it down and the state would have to ante up more money foranother speculative venture.

Another example of the “sounds good” approach to government isthe Legislature’s 1998 expansion of Medicaid coverage to a levelunmatched by any other state in the nation. That move put morepeople on the Medicaid rolls and made many people, includinglawmakers, feel good.

Feel good, that is, until 2004 when the state could no longerafford the drain on its budget and many on Medicaid were faced withlosing some benefits. Barbour and lawmakers feuded much of the yearand into 2005 over how to fix the problems.

In hindsight, the solution was never to have expanded the rollsin the first place. Hindsight as they say, though, is 20-20.

Looking ahead to foresee potential problems and fix them on thefront end is why patience is needed on proposals like the beefplant, the cigarette-grocery tax plan and other well-intentionedmeasures. Lawmakers must learn that just because something ispopular, it’s not always prudent.