Legislators’ Neglect Impairing Highway System

Competent leaders seeking to sustain quality of life and spur economic growth appreciate the importance of physical infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers grades physical infrastructure in each state annually. In 2012, Mississippi grades were:  Dams and levees – D; Drinking water – C-; Roads and bridges – C; Wastewater – C.

Hold on, a C in roads and bridges?

Why, it was just two years ago that Blueprint Mississippi touted Mississippi’s highway system as number one in the Mid-South: “The success of Mississippi’s roadways system is due in part to Mississippi’s Four-Lane Highway Program, which was enacted in 1987 to provide intrastate mobility.” That status was based on a report looking at the period 1984 – 2008.

What has happened since 2008 to turn things around?

The civil engineers’ report said “Recent MDOT studies show only 51% of the necessary revenue is available to maintain Mississippi’s road and bridge system.”

“There is a serious threat to the State’s economy and the residents’ livelihood,” continued the report. “If funding levels are not addressed in the very near future, roads and bridges as well as jobs and population centers will see a decline.”

Legislative studies agreed.

A PEER Committee report in January said, “Studies show that the funding available for transportation is not sufficient to meet Mississippi’s highway, road, and bridge needs.”

PEER said MDOT needs $1 billion to repair pavement to an acceptable condition and $400 million annually to maintain pavement in good condition, but only gets about $150 million annually. PEER said MDOT needs $2.7 billion to repair or replace bridges and $200 million to replace all currently deficient bridges in a timely manner, but only gets $50 to $80 million annually.

A special Senate task force headed by Senator Willie Simmons, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, also found funding to be inadequate. “We found information that supports the need to improve our roads and bridges, and we also found the need for more funds,” Simmons told the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison after the task force’s final meeting in January.

Given this serious state of affairs, what did our legislators do?

Find ways to significantly increase MDOT funding?

No. They continued to ignore and neglect mounting road and bridge needs.

The bills they considered provided only minimal increases. But, even those did not pass. They died over a silly spat between House and Senate leaders over prioritization of road projects.

A commonsensical Governor Phil Bryant saved the day by adding MDOT funding to the special session he called to fund new assistant district attorneys. Legislators finally agreed to fund MDOT with a 2.5% increase, far below the established need.

“Competent” would not be the right word to describe leaders able to turn a Mississippi infrastructure strength into a weakness so quickly.

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Crowers Cower from Tax Reform Plan

“What is needed is a thorough restructuring of the tax laws – one that is broad and yet achievable,” crowed House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan in his “Roadmap for America’s Future” released in 2010.

“I believe we must make the tax code simpler and fairer,” crowed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. “We must reduce tax rates for job creators to promote economic growth.”

“Comprehensive tax reform is long overdue,” Speaker of the House John Boehner crowed in 2013. “At four million words and growing, our federal tax code is too complex and too inefficient.”

Republicans have crowed about tax reform for years. Indeed, since they took over the House in 2011, House Republicans have promised comprehensive tax reform in their annual budget proposals.

Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was directed by Speaker Boehner to develop a tax reform plan.

Ta da!

Rep. Camp released the plan last month, one that is very fair to middle income earners, reduces rates on high earners, and eliminates much of the complex tax code.

Camp said his pro-growth proposal would create up to 1.8 million new jobs. It would cut the top tax rate to 25%. It would increase the standard deduction to $22,000 and, thereby, simplify individual tax returns for up to 95% of filers by eliminating the need to itemize deductions (also eliminating the need for mortgage interest and state and local tax deductions).

But there was no crowing by Republican leaders. Rather, they dodged questions about when, or if, the Camp plan would be considered.

“Dave Camp should be congratulated for having the courage to put something like this on the table to get this conversation going,” said Ryan.

“You’re getting a little bit ahead of yourself,” Speaker Boehner said when asked if House Republicans would stand behind the Camp plan.

“I think we will not be able to finish the job, regretfully,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.”

What caused the crowers to suddenly cower? Turns out there are many powerful lobbyists who do not favor a simpler, fairer tax code.

Among the contentious issues are: elimination of the “carried interest” loophole that private-equity managers use to shield earnings; reducing from $1 million to $500,000 the amount of a home mortgage on which interest is deductible; elimination of a loophole that entrepreneurs, consultants, lawyers, doctors and other professionals use to avoid paying Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes by taking their earnings as business income instead of wages; and elimination of deductions for state and local taxes.

Check out Camp’s plan yourself at the web site: tax.house.gov.

Then, next time your Congressman crows about the need for tax reform, ask him to talk turkey about Camp’s plan.

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Tax Dollars Used for Politicians’ Self-Promotion

How many of your tax dollars, if any, should be spent for self-promotion by elected officials?

It’s quite common when new governors get elected to see their names pop up on all kinds of things:  Welcome to Mississippi signs on the highways; state maps; tourism and economic development promotion materials; and more.

But, the issue is much bigger than that.

Sen. John Polk of Hattiesburg introduced a bill this year that would prohibit candidates from appearing in tax-funded advertising during election years.

You may recall that Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann used his quirky “Dilbert” 2007 and 2011 campaign advertising style for ads that explain the state’s new voter ID law. No doubt he will use this style again if he seeks re-election or another office. A spokesperson for Hosemann’s office said $41,750 of tax money was spent to air the ads.

Then State Treasurer, now Lieutenant Governor, Tate Reeves appeared in ads for the state-sponsored college savings plan.

The Associated Press reported Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula said former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd – who has resigned and pleaded guilty to federal charges of obstructing justice and witness intimidation – used public money to pay for election-year signs with anti-drug messages. “Conveniently, it said, ‘Don’t do meth,’ and conveniently beside that was his face on billboards,” Wiggins said.

“My constituents asked for it because they felt like a lot of elected officials may have an unfair advantage during an election year,” explained Polk.

His bill passed the Senate 45 to 5, but died in the House Apportionment and Elections Committee.

The latest twist in tax payer funded self-promotion can be found on the Internet.  Apparently, it’s not enough for some statewide elected officials to have just their photos and messages on agency web pages. They need more.

The web address for State Treasurer Lynn Fitch is no longer www.treasury.state.ms.us.  It’s www.treasurerlynnfitch.com.  Likewise the web address for Governor Phil Bryant is www.governorbryant.com.  Internet domain names like treasurerlynnfitch.com and governorbryant.com don’t cost much. But they do cost taxpayers something.

Attorney General Jim Hood’s official web site is www.ago.state.ms.us. But he has a second private domain web address www.agjimhood.com that links to the same information.

Lt. Gov. Reeves didn’t go quite so far. He doesn’t have a private domain name. He uses www.ltgovreeves.ms.gov, which is provided by the State of Mississippi.

Secretary of State Hosemann, State Auditor Stacey Pickering, Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith, and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney have stuck with mundane web addresses like www.sos.ms.gov and www.mdac.state.ms.us that do nothing to promote themselves.

Then, there are the web pages themselves.

Go to www.ms.gov, click on “government,” then “state agency directory” to judge these pages for yourself.

Self-promotion should not be a taxpayer funded function of government.

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Most State Employees Can’t Get a Break

State employees can’t get a break. Well, most can’t.

In 2012, Mississippi had 58,135 state employees earning an average salary of $41,870, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A Pew Charitable Trusts study reported this was significantly higher than the $35,263 average private sector salary in Mississippi. Couple this with the state’s generous retirement plan – few, if any, private sector retirement plans are anywhere near as generous – and you get a glimpse of why many think state employees don’t deserve a break.

But, wait a minute.

There are 31,514 state employees covered by the Mississippi State Personnel Board. The rest counted in the BLS figures are university professors and employees; the Governor, Lt. Governor, legislators and their staffs; judges; and members of the National Guard – all not covered by the Board.

The median salary for Board covered employees was just $30,046, noticeably below the private sector average.

And, according to the Associated Press, 49% of them earned less than $29,000 and 14% less than $19,999.

Rep. Johnny Stringer of Montrose says these employees have not received a pay increase in seven years. But, during that time their required contributions to the struggling state retirement system have increased 24% and the amount many pay toward their health insurance benefit has more than doubled.

No wonder so many quit.

Last year the Board reported 3,649 state employees quit. Over the past five years, 15,390 employees quit. Of these 62% were under the age of 40 and 67% were employed less than five years, indicating a retention problem.

Deanne Mosley, executive director of the Board, worries that the underpinnings of the state workforce are eroding. She told legislative leaders that in addition to resignations, one-third of her workforce can retire in the next five years and among them are many key supervisors and leaders. “They have an incredible amount of institutional knowledge,” she said. She suggested a pay increase could keep them working longer.

Last year, due to resignations and retirements, the Board’s covered workforce hit a 10-year low; down 1,298 from the prior year.

“It has been disheartening to see so many good, sharp, long-tenured employees leave to retire or take other jobs,” one long-time agency administrator told me. “Hiring people qualified for their tasks who will take jobs for such low pay has almost been impossible to tackle.”

Stringer has been trying unsuccessfully to tack pay increases on to appropriations bills. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson of Poplarville said the $39 million Stringer’s proposals would cost in ongoing appropriations is not available. “We wanted to do it. And we ran out of money,” he said.

Maybe Board covered state employees should ask for tax breaks instead. Those appear to be available for the asking.

 

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Debt Service Is Big Spending

What are the big spending categories in Mississippi’s General Fund?

 Well, everybody knows education is number one. Education, which includes public schools, universities, community colleges, schools for the blind and deaf, vocational education, ETV, and libraries, at $2.8 billion accounted for 56.6% of General Fund appropriations last fiscal year.

 Eh, is Medicaid number two?  Well, sort of.  Social welfare includes Medicaid. At $737.9 million it accounted for 14.7% of the 2014 General Fund appropriations.  Also included in this category are the Department of Rehabilitation Services and the Department of Human Services. Medicaid accounted for 78% of the appropriations in this category.

 Is Corrections third?  Nope.

 Corrections spending at $334.6 million was fourth, totaling 6.7% of General Fund appropriations.

 The third category is Debt Service – principal and interest paid on state general obligation bonds – which at $375.4 million totaled 7.5% of General Fund appropriations for FY2014. These payments service over $4 billion in outstanding general obligation debt.

 Debt Service and outstanding bonded indebtedness don’t usually capture much public attention. For years the Legislature regularly passed multi-million dollar “Christmas Tree” bond bills for all sorts of projects. Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves changed that two years ago when he led the Senate to block the annual bond bill. Reeves said he is determined to reduce Mississippi’s dependence on debt.

 Data indicates his approach has begun working. From 2000 through 2011, Debt Service nearly doubled from 4.6% of General Fund appropriations to 8.3%.  Since Reeves took office in 2012, the percentage has dropped each year, down to 7.5% this past year.

 This progress may be in jeopardy, though. The Mississippi House appears to be adorning a new Christmas Tree. Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports the House has passed a variety of bond bills totaling $431 million.

 “We are a long way apart,” he quoted Reeves as saying.

 Whether the Legislature passes a bond bill this year or not, new bonds will be issued. The state’s latest comprehensive annual financial report showed there are $958 million in bonds authorized by the Legislature but not yet issued. Little detail is provided in the financial report’s notes to show how much of this balance is pending versus how much is unlikely to be issued. But in the year no bond bill was passed, Reeve’s said over $100 million in bonds were issued.

 If you’re interested in learning details about all these bonds, sorry. The best you’ll find is a general category list in the comprehensive annual financial report at the useful Department of Finance and Administration website: http://www.dfa.state.ms.us.  The State Treasurer’s less useful website only lists recent issuances: http://www.treasurerlynnfitch.com

 If you’re interested in controlling state spending, you might ask your legislator why more information on bonds is not readily available.

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Religion Bill a Sign of the Times

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine in “The Crisis” on December 23, 1776.

He was recruiting citizens to fight for the Creator-endowed unalienable rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence.  Just over 12 years later, on March 4, 1789, Congress adopted the Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution to ensure these rights for posterity.

The first line of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Tension between this freedom and the others established in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights has been with us since the beginning. Such tension confronts us today.

At the national level, the mandate in Obamacare that businesses provide for contraceptives in their insurance plans is at the forefront. Business owners whose religious views proscribe contraception see this as an infringement on their freedom of religion. This issue will be taken up by the Supreme Court this month.

At the state level, all sorts of issues pop up from Christmas and Ten Commandment displays and prayer in schools and on public properties to limits on abortion clinics and definitions of marriage. Now comes our Legislature with a new issue.

Sen. Phillip Gandy of Waynesboro introduced and the Senate passed unanimously a bill to create the “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Concerns immediately arose that the bill was an attempt similar to one in Arizona to allow businesses to deny service to gay customers.

Not so, said Gandy. “There’s a lot of misinformation about this and people are confusing it with the Arizona law. What mine does is already law in Arizona and elsewhere,” he said. “It was not intended to discriminate against anybody.”

Rep. Andy Gipson of Braxton, chairman of the House Judiciary B Committee said, “I think the bill could be fixed.”

Governor Jan Brewer vetoed Arizona’s bill after the major business and sports leaders spoke against it. “We are troubled by any legislation that could be interpreted to permit discrimination against a particular group of people in the marketplace,” read a letter submitted by one such group.

Gipson’s committee has recommended changes, endorsed by the Mississippi Economic Council, to make the bill more like the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993, that focuses on government actions not business actions. Ironically, that federal act is being cited by businesses challenging the Obamacare contraceptive requirement.

Friends, these issues are just facets of the real tension – the relentless tide of government and court expansion of individual rights to the detriment of conservative Christian beliefs.

A deist, Paine would say, “these are the times that try Christian’s souls.”

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Reporter Says McDaniel Hedging on Key Issues

If you sense something fishy about Senator Thad Cochran’s upstart opponent, it may be the flip-flopping. Republican senate candidate Chris McDaniel’s issue fickleness was exposed in a recent article by Politico.com reporter Alexander Burns.

McDaniel promotes himself as an anti-government, anti-spending purist in the mold of Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, both of whom, for example, took strong ideological positions against the federal farm bill and the Hurricane Sandy relief bill.

“I’m not going to do anything for you,” McDaniel preached to a group of Ole Miss students, according to Burns. “I’m going to get the government off your back, then I’m gonna let you do it for yourself.”

But a little later, Burns reported, McDaniel “hedged that statement.”

When asked about whether he supported the federal farm bill or efforts to subsidize federal flood insurance rates, “McDaniel said he was not prepared to take a position on either.” On the flood insurance issue he added, “The people of the Coast have come to depend upon that, to a certain extent.”

McDaniel also waffled, Burns reported, on whether he would have championed the Hurricane Katrina relief bill that Cochran championed and pushed to passage. “I would have to see the details of it. I really would,” McDaniel said, according to Burns. “That’s not an easy vote to cast.” Pressed by Burns, McDaniel said, “I probably would have supported it.”  The next day McDaniel’s spokesman “to clarify” told Burns “Chris would’ve been a yes vote on the disaster bill.”

In the days following the Burns article, newspaper editorials and numerous Republican leaders blasted McDaniel for his weak statement of support for Katrina relief. McDaniel responded by saying his opponents were slandering him. Then, he posted on Facebook a message of sudden strong support for hurricane relief spending:

“Just to be perfectly clear, I support disaster relief efforts for massive tragedies like Katrina.”

Alas, to please the big out-of-state Super Pacs bankrolling his campaign, McDaniel needs to stay on the anti-government, anti-spending message with Cruz and Lee.

“McDaniel spoke admiringly of Cruz and Lee,” Burns wrote in his article, “explaining that he had spoken with both men and met several times with Lee. Asked what kind of advice he got from the upstart duo, McDaniel said it was much ‘the same type of advice I gave those students tonight. Just that the country is worth defending, the country is worth saving and that it takes courage to do that. That’s the message of our movement.”

Hmm, courage.  Courage means sticking with the message in the face of opposition, something McDaniel seems to have trouble doing.

One final fishy note in the Politico.com article, Burns wrote, “Lee’s spokesman said the senator’s conversations with McDaniel were ‘news to me.’

Oops.

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