Editorials

Time to try new ways to boost state economy

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, left, confers with House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, during a legislative working group hearing that centered on agency personnel and their cost effectiveness, Thursday at the Capitol in Jackson. The bipartisan group of lawmakers seeks to gain additional information regarding budget requests, expenditures in programs and agencies as well as challenge their implementation.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, left, confers with House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, during a legislative working group hearing that centered on agency personnel and their cost effectiveness, Thursday at the Capitol in Jackson. The bipartisan group of lawmakers seeks to gain additional information regarding budget requests, expenditures in programs and agencies as well as challenge their implementation. AP

To say we are perplexed by last week’s state budget adjustment would be an understatement.

It was another accounting error. A $56.8 million accounting error. And further cuts in many state agency budgets.

That’s unsettling enough, but it was the second paragraph of his explanation that was the head-scratcher.

“It is important to remember that general fund spending has increased 26 percent, five times the rate of inflation, the last four years,” Gov. Phil Bryant said. “That kind of growth over such a short period of time is simply unsustainable.”

Don’t worry, though, he said, your state leaders are on the case.

That would be the same state leaders who have held the House and Senate and the governor’s mansion since 2011. Pardon our lack of optimism.

Bryant didn’t explain where that 26 percent increase in spending went. Legislative panels have been going over that budget line by line to find the leak.

There’s one we know. Medicaid spending. It’s devouring the state budget.

But here is the kicker. Medicaid spending is growing at a much slower pace, 3.4 percent, in states that expanded the health-care program for the poor under the Affordable Care Act than Mississippi’s 6.9 percent.

Mississippi leaders had hoped the state economy would start to grow and create enough extra revenue to erase the $56.8 million error by the end of the year. Clearly they’ve abandoned that hope.

And yet our leaders remain optimistic. They tell us we are on the path to prosperity.

Evidence suggests otherwise.

Last week, Loyola University’s Jesuit Social Research Institute in New Orleans offered its view of the State of Working Mississippi 2016. It does not paint a pretty picture.

“The state’s increasingly inequitable system of taxation places a disproportionate burden on low- and middle-income families, while tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals and corporations have left the state without adequate revenue for critical public services and infrastructure, including public schools and hospitals,” researchers Jeanie Donovan and William McCormick wrote in their executive summary.

“Mississippi also ranks low on measures of quality of life and education levels of the labor force, making it an unattractive state for new and growing businesses despite its generally business-friendly state tax system. Accordingly, if Mississippi is going to rebound economically the state must invest more in its current and future workforce and improve its public services and infrastructure. Without concerted policy changes, the economic struggles of the state and its workers will continue and grow worse.”

They have a prescription for reversing that course: Fully fund education, increase child-care assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, add money for needs-based college tuition assistance, expand Medicaid, raise minimum wage, grant a state Earned Income Tax Credit, reduce or eliminate the sales tax on groceries and increase state tax revenues without placing additional burdens on the poor.

These are not ideas Bryant is likely to find appealing. But given the state of the state’s economy, nothing should be off the table.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.

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