Treading water shouldn’t be good enough for voters
After 30 minutes with the household bills, Dad comes to the dinner table. Looking somber, he tells Mom, Junior and Sis, “We’ve got to cut back. We’re spending more than we have.”
The family agrees to work with Dad and, after the dishes are cleared, they stay at the table and make a list of expenses so they can discuss where to achieve savings.
Mortgage? No. Got to pay that. Car note(s)? No. That’s a fixed obligation. Student loan? Same. Water, gas, sewer, electricity? Can conserve a bit; otherwise no option. Credit cards? Already paying the minimum and the balances keep growing. Phones, TV and internet? They’re high, but we can’t imagine life without them. Groceries? We’re already pretty frugal, use coupons and shop sales. Savings? Church? We could trim there. But not much.
Legislative budget hearings begin shortly. Lawmakers will listen to agency requests. A fiction is that each session legislators slice an entire budget pie. The reality is, as with our model family, almost every penny of Mississippi’s revenue is spent before it arrives.
Next year is an election year and if things shake out as expected, there will be a lot of talk about the state’s fiscal situation. Much of it will be laced with fear and, well, way too shallow.
The two most likely finalists for governor, Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, launched volleys at the Neshoba County Fair. Predictably, Reeves’ approach was to characterize Hood as a tax-and-spend liberal who would empty voters’ wallets to fuel government waste. Hood said legislators were showing fealty to their corporate sponsors by cutting taxes and providing so many financial goody bags that the state couldn’t meet its basic obligations.
Well, fine. Stump speaking is what it is.
Voters, however, should remember the state and the model family are pretty much in the same situation.
As one illustration, lawmakers have no control over entitlements. As the name indicates, there’s no discretion. Lawmakers define a benefit and the criteria to receive that benefit. Once that’s done, any person who qualifies must be provided that benefit. Could be SNAP, could be an unemployment check, could be Medicaid. Even though Mississippi’s individual entitlement payments are the lowest in the nation, the state is on the hook for all who qualify.
Same for bonded debt. Although Reeves as treasurer and as lieutenant governor has been strategically frugal, payments on what the state owes are as non-optional as the family’s Visa bill.
There are many, many other fixed expenses. The more buildings the state owns, the higher the cost of operation and maintenance. The more people incarcerated, the more the state must pay to provide food, housing, health care. The state even has contracts with private prisons that guarantees they will have inmates.
In recent years with lagging state revenue, various approaches have been taken to make this problem less obvious.
One has been to spend less on “options.” The Constitution says providing public schools is a state duty, but while the Legislature set funding guarantees, it consistently ignored them. There’s been less-than-adequate money for law enforcement, roads, bridges, courts, mental health services … and the list goes on.
Another approach was to “scrape” all dedicated funds — collected from taxpayers for specific purposes — and divert those funds to achieve “balance.”
A third approach has been to create new revenue streams. In the same way that our model Dad and Mom might get second jobs, Mississippi has added casinos, higher tobacco and gas taxes and is talking about a lottery to supplement sales and income tax revenue.
If he campaigns for governor, Reeves will adopt the position that the state can’t tax its way to prosperity. Very true.
As for Hood, at least part of his message will be that the Legislature must stop the buddy-buddy giveaways and compete openly and honestly for credible private investment.
There is no arguing the fact that despite great employment statistics, Mississippi lags its neighbors and the nation in job and income growth. USA TODAY reports that Mississippi is the only state in the South that lost population in 2017. Let that sink in — the only state in the South to lose population.
The next governor’s focus should be on how best to get with the program — to fund the basics while also fueling economic expansion. In turn, voters should cast their ballots based on the strategies they find most credible.
Either that, or keep treading water as the ship of prosperity sails away.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.