Paul Hampton

PAUL HAMPTON: Mississippi, the land of low taxes - and deep potholes

STEVE SACK, THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
STEVE SACK, THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

Apparently Gov. Phil Bryant wants to make it an even 50.

In four years, he's cut taxes 49 times.

But he didn't get the income tax cut he wanted last year. House Democrats blocked that one.

And if the GOP-controlled House decides Republican Mark Tullos, not Democrat Bo Eaton, won the District 79 race, the Republicans will have a supermajority that won't need any Democratic defectors to get that tax cut done. I don't need a Magic 8 Ball to predict how that House vote will go.

So, looks like the only thing that could stop tax cuts is a Republican or two awakening to the evidence that tax cuts don't do what the proponents say they do -- make the state more competitive.

The Tax Foundation rates Mississippi No. 18 in its 2015 State Business Tax Climate Index. So it should follow that we'd be up there when it comes to the state's economy.

But up pops reality.

About the only things we're in the Top 20 for is poverty and teen pregnancy. We're at or near the bottom in median income and unemployment.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in its latest New Economy Index finds Mississippi in familiar territory, dead last. It's a spot Mississippi has held in all but one of the indexes since 1999.

The state, the foundation found, just doesn't have the skilled workers needed to compete. That's a lesson Mississippi Power learned when it began building its Kemper power plant in the wilds of Mississippi. Shortages of skilled labor got part of the blame for problems there that pushed the project far over initial cost estimates and far behind schedule.

Chief Executive magazine ranked Mississippi 39th among the best and worst states to do business. And it ranked it as high as it did primarily because of the state's strong infrastructure.

I'm sure you see where this is headed.

"Roads across the state are beginning to crumble," Joe Sanderson, the head of Sanderson Farms, one of the state's biggest industries, said last week. "Bridges are unsafe."

And the grand economy Bryant is fond of talking about is performing so well that mid-year budget cuts likely will be needed unless economic forecasts prove to be too pessimistic.

So that's the backdrop for the notion that we can afford a tax cut. We can't -- even if all we needed to do was train up our workforce and fix up our roads. It isn't. Taxpayers are also on the hook for billions in unfunded liabilities in the state retirement plan. A big part of state spending on roads and bridges is on the cuff. Our schools are underfunded by the Legislature's own measure.

And even if we could afford cuts, they aren't effective. The best example is Kansas, a state where tax cuts failed so badly that tax-cut proponents here felt obliged to point out how the Mississippi plan would differ from Kansas'.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found four of the five states that cut income taxes recently had slower job growth than the nation. Four of the six states that cut income taxes in the 2000s have had a decline in their share of national employment. New Mexico and Oklahoma are the states whose shares grew and that was helped along by a surge in oil prices in the middle of the decade.

In other words, they're the household budgeting equivalent of betting the car payment on the PowerBall. But if the Republicans insist on cutting taxes, we should at least change our motto. Mississippi -- those are small lakes, not potholes.

Contact Paul Hampton, politics editor of the Sun Herald, at 896-2300 or jphampton@sunherald.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulhampton

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