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Mississippi's sugar daddy is Uncle Sam

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi and the airmen who serve there bring millions of dollars to the Coast.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi and the airmen who serve there bring millions of dollars to the Coast. SUN HERALD

It was the sort of email the Sun Herald has grown accustomed to receiving during Thad Cochran's decades in the Senate.

The senator on Friday was announcing another multimillion-dollar package of federal spending for the state.

In this case, it was $13.3 million in federal aid to help 29 counties, Harrison among them, recover from storms and floods.

"Tornadoes, flooding and other inclement weather have been persistent challenges for Mississippi communities in recent years," Cochran wrote. "I am pleased that the Department of Agriculture is making good use of this funding to help our state repair damaged infrastructure and speed up recovery."

That's one advantage of having the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in your corner.

And that's one reason the state is the most dependent of all states on federal money.

The personal finance website WalletHub.com last week ranked Mississippi No. 1 in government dependency and No. 50 in gross domestic product. It put Mississippi in the high taxes-high dependency group, ranking the state's tax rate No. 38 (where 1 is best and 50 is worst).

It found a "median U.S. Household" (one with $53,889 in income, a home valued at $175,000 and a car valued at $23,070) paid $6,525 in state and local taxes.

WalletHub's Fred L. Morrison, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, was quick to note not all federal spending in a state subsidizes that state.

"Some expenditures are clearly national," he wrote, citing national defense as spending that benefits the whole country.

That certainly applies to the Coast, home to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, the Seabee and National Guard bases in Gulfport and Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.

"Sen. Cochran is proud of the contributions Mississippians provide to our national security and to globally significant research funded by the federal government," Chris Gallegos, spokesman for the senator, said. "The senator works to support those activities, while also supporting state and local efforts to spur economic development and attract job opportunities to the state."

According to the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, of the $21.8 billion appropriated for the current fiscal year, $9.5 billion came from the federal government.

Add to that the hundreds of millions received in the form of federal grants to cities and counties. What was touted as the biggest economic-development project in state history -- the restoration and expansion of the Port of Gulfport -- is being paid for by a $570 million federal grant. In all, Mississippi received $5.5 billion from the federal government for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

"In Biloxi," said city spokesman Vincent Creel, "our annual operating budget is about $55 million, and is primarily funded by -- in order of money -- gaming, sales tax and property taxes. Our federal programs budget, which is primarily block grants, is about half a million dollars, but the huge infusion of federal money is our capital projects budget, which right now is $300 million with $275 million of that coming from the federal government.

"To put it into perspective, consider this. If you're on Highway 90 stopped at the red light at the Biloxi Lighthouse, the beautiful $13 million Visitors Center north of the highway was built with federal money, as was the $5 million waterfront park next to it. The red light you're stopped at was paid for with federal money, as was the highway you're driving on, and a half-million dollars in federal money was used to restore the lighthouse, which, of course, overlooks the lighthouse pier, which also restored with federal money.

"North, south, east or west, you're looking at the impact of federal money."

But the state has turned down federal aid, too, most notably from the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Critics suggest that decision cost the state billions and left its working poor less healthy.

And those federal dollars often have strings attached. The federal government has used transportation money to persuade states to follow its highway-safety policies. It also used grants to lead states to adopt its education policies.

Cochran's office pointed out another perspective -- a set of rankings the Mississippi Development Authority touts to potential employers and residents. It has two No. 1s for community college system (by WalletHub) and low cost of living (by CNBC). The MDA also points out the state's competitive labor costs, low cost of doing business, incentive programs and cooperative government.

"While many parts of Mississippi must contend with economic, educational and health challenges, Sen. Cochran believes public and private investment in our state makes a difference by providing greater access to employment, education and health care," Gallegos said.

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