State Government in “Oops” Mode

Oops….The Department of Revenue laid off 35 temp workers who help process tax returns just as thousands of April tax returns arrived.

Not only will Mississippi tax returns get processed late, but the snafu made April tax collections come up short by $85 million. Gov. Phil Bryant has already had to make mid-year budget cuts. He included the Department of Revenue. The department chose to lay off its temp processors. Hopefully, revenue will catch up as tax returns finally get processed. But, if a big shortfall remains after May, the Governor will be forced to make a third round of cuts. June will be the only month left in this fiscal year for agencies, universities, and community colleges to absorb the cuts. State funded employees should be ready for a month of furloughs.
Oops….Legislators’ last minute assault on agency funding put the Department of Health, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), the Office of Attorney General and other agencies in dire straits.

Trying to balance next year’s state budget in the face of revenue shortfalls, the Legislature, without notice, little debate, and questionable due diligence, confiscated special funds and outlawed interagency transactions.

“It could cost the state more than $20 million in federal funding because agencies will be unable to receive federal reimbursement without a bill from another state agency,” said a spokeswoman for the Office of Attorney General.

Health Department director Dr. Mary Currier said when disasters hit, her department oversees evacuations of care facilities, operates emergency clinics, and ensures water, food, and facilities are safe in the aftermath. To cover these extraordinary costs her department receives federal funds through MEMA. “I don’t know,” she told the Clarion-Ledger when asked what her agency will do without MEMA funds when a disaster hits.

MEMA director Lee Smithson told the newspaper that since he took office on Feb. 1, “the state has seen 33 confirmed tornadoes and flooding in 42 of 82 counties, 26 of which were issued federal disaster declarations.”

“The second order effect of this budget reduction is huge,” said Smithson. “For every dollar they take, I could potentially lose two.”

Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney said the Legislature’s move could hurt fire protection statewide and increase homeowners’ insurance premiums.

Oops….Money to pay debt service on state bonds will be short by over $30 million. And, several projects in the new $308 million bond bill won’t pass muster.

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch said she had notified legislative leaders that money for bond payments would be insufficient. “I stand by that conclusion now,” she told the Mississippi Business Journal. Fitch also said, “There are different components of the (bond) bill that don’t meet the test for what you would borrow money for.” These include using long-term bonds to pay for salaries and routine operating expenses, recurring expenses, and short-life projects such as landscaping.

“Sorry, oops,” was used unsuccessfully to explain shortcomings by former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Wonder what line Gov. Bryant and legislative leaders will use?

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Most 12th Graders Are Not College or Career Ready

“Most High School Seniors Aren’t College Or Career Ready, Says Nation’s Report Card,” reads the headline.

A look at “The National Report Card” for 2015 produced by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows just 25% of U.S. 12th graders scored proficient or higher in math and just 37% in reading.

Andrew Ho, a measurement expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who sits on NAEP’s bipartisan governing board, told NPR’s Anya Kamenetz these scores reveal “under 40% of students score at college and career ready levels.” What “college and career ready” means is that students will be able to succeed in doing college-level academics, or, with on-the-job training, succeed in a career position requiring only a high school diploma.

Ho’s 40% applies to 12th graders nationwide. While no Mississippi 12th grade results were published by NAEP, our students scored well below the national average on NAEP 8th grade math and reading tests. Extrapolating the 8th grade scores to 12th graders indicates less than 30% of Mississippi’s graduating seniors may be college or career ready.

No wonder so many high school graduates get placed into developmental math and English classes when they enter college. No wonder so many never make it out of these classes. No wonder so many never finish college.

No wonder new industry prospects question the readiness of Mississippi’s workforce for advanced manufacturing and high-tech jobs. No wonder major Mississippi industries have to sort through hundreds of applicants to find a handful who are qualified for employment.

No wonder solving this dilemma was the top priority of the recent session of the Mississippi Legislature.

Huh?

Oh, that’s right. Legislators focused on bills addressing issues that were much more important, bills columnist Charlie Mitchell, described as, “Reactionary bills. Defensive bills. Shallow bills. Bills for their buddies.”

Legislators seemed pretty happy with the status quo for students, as evidenced by what they passed and funded. New things they did pass – more charter schools and requiring all school superintendents to be appointed – were more periphery than centered on getting Mississippi children college and career ready.

Mississippi has focused effort and resources on high school drop-outs. Unfortunately, getting these kids high school diplomas may not help them that much. The diploma may make them technically eligible for college or employment, but not ready and able to succeed in either.

College and career readiness for students is a national priority. Mississippi has been operating under waivers relevant to this priority under No Child Left Behind. The new Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more control over their standards and priorities.

If getting students college and career ready is to be a state priority, and it should be, then adequate and better focused resources, more and better trained teachers, and more programs that develop career skills in high school must be provided.

And legislators should make this their top priority. Or give up on our children and cut more taxes instead.

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Responsible Governance Has Had Its Day in Mississippi

Bless their hearts. They did the best they could.

After taking care of themselves, political promises, and lobbyists, there just wasn’t much Republican legislators, with their new super-majority in the House and Senate, could do to take care of Mississippi’s real needs.

At least it certainly looks that way.

House Republicans kept their money train fueled by special interests and lobbyists on track.

Contributions to legislators’ campaign accounts are how lobbyists and special interests buy influence. After news reports detailed how legislators abused these accounts by paying for lifestyle expenses unrelated to campaigns, the Senate moved to stop it. House Republicans rebelled, killing a watered down compromise of the Senate bill. This move also killed a needed election law update developed by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

Political promises battled with political promises in bills providing $308 million in bonds and $415 million in tax cuts. House Republicans wanted extra millions in bonds to keep numerous political promises. Senate Republicans wanted a big tax cut to help Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ keep political promises to business interests. Their hard fought compromise (cough, cough) was to do both.

“This bill is the same kind of Christmas-tree-collection of earmarked goodies that many of these same state legislators rail against Congress for pushing through in the dead of the night,” Republican State Treasurer Lynn Fitch said of the bond bill.

The tax cut bill included Reeves’ plan to phase out $260 million in business franchise taxes. Also included were $10.2 million in tax cuts for small business owners and a $150 benefit to individual taxpayers from phasing out of the 3% personal income tax bracket at a cost of $145 million.

Keeping political promises over the past five legislative sessions has now resulted in business tax cuts totaling over $620 million.

On the one issue where business interests wanted taxes increased, Republican legislators chose to keep lobbyists happy instead. A Mississippi Economic Council report documented the dire need for funds to repair Mississippi’s roads and bridges. The business group called for new revenue totaling $375 million a year. Anti-tax lobbyists, many driven by out-of-state special interests, persuaded (cough, cough) GOP legislators to do absolutely nothing about this real need.

Another unaddressed real need is the growing fiscal crisis. Just after Republican legislators adopted its huge tax cuts, Gov.  Phil Bryant ordered additional mid-year budget cuts and another raid on the state rainy day fund. Couple these with legislators depending once again on one-time money to balance the budget and you see the state’s sound fiscal foundation starting to crack. Aggravating the problem, insiders say spending bills just passed will exceed next year’s revenue by $150 to $200 million. And that’s before the new tax cuts kick in.

Yes, it seems clear, the politics of self-interest and special interests now dominate the Republican dominated Legislature. Responsible governance, espoused by the early fathers of the modern Republican Party in Mississippi and championed by former Gov. Haley Barbour, has had its day.

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Needed – Politicians Who Live Biblical Principles

Christian evangelist Franklin Graham is right. We need more political leaders who “believe in and live biblical principles.”

“If we don’t do this we are going to lose our country,” said Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham. He delivered his message last week at a prayer rally at the State Capitol in Jackson.

That “live” part is especially important.

How often have we seen politicians present themselves as moral champions only to learn that was a false front, a façade used to attract votes. As one attendee told the Clarion-Ledger, “Sometimes they tell you they are (godly people), then when they get into office they do something else.”

The temptations for politicians to cheat, lie, and make false promises are ever present. Too many of our political leaders succumb to these temptations.

Consider elected officials who use their campaign accounts for unrelated personal spending. They are cheaters who accept donations to get and stay elected, but spend the money on trips, clothes, vehicles, apartments and more.

Consider the elected officials who lie to constituents when they say they are for something, but vote differently when special interests turn up the heat. In particular, consider the legislators who told local officials, businesses, and other constituents they would support more funding to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, then voted against legislation to do just that when anti-tax lobbyists threatened to turn voters against them.

Consider the false promises elected officials loudly proclaimed upon passing House Bill 1523, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. Authored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, passed handily by the House and Senate, and proudly signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant, this law purports to protect churches, businesses, and public employees if, based on “sincerely held religious views or moral convictions” about marriage, sex, and gender identity, they refuse to accommodate certain people, e.g. gay couples and LGBT individuals.

House Bill 1523 offers false promises, not protection, because the issues involved arise from federal law and constitutional rights, not state law.

“We would caution government officials and others that House Bill 1523 does not override federal law or constitutional rights,” said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. “If a person or government official violates a federal statute or constitutional provision, House Bill 1523 will not protect that official from a federal lawsuit or from potential personal liability under federal law.”

Even Gov. Bryant said, “This bill does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state.”

Any state law that promises legal protection for actions deemed discriminatory by federal law or court interpretations of the U.S. Constitution makes promises that cannot be relied upon… false promises.

Political leaders who truly believe in and live biblical principles do not make false promises. Nor do they cheat or lie. Rather their actions shine with the integrity, forthrightness, and honest assurances engendered by their firm faith.

Yes, Franklin, we need such leaders.

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Universities Must Do Even Better Job Preparing Reading Teachers

Reading matters.

Perhaps no other accomplishment would improve Mississippi prosperity more than for all our children to read proficiently.

So believed Jim and Sally Barksdale 16 years ago when they invested $100 million to improve reading outcomes for Mississippi children. Millions of dollars and many initiatives later, the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) continues to push Mississippi to do better.

Gov. Phil Bryant and Mississippi legislators got on board in 2013 when they enacted Bryant’s “third-grade gate” proposal. Officially the Mississippi Literacy Based Promotion Act, the law requires third-graders to read at least on basic grade level before being promoted to fourth grade. The law also provides reading coaches and training for teachers.

“The key to teaching children how to read is the teacher,” says Barksdale. “And the key to effective teachers is the professional training they receive.”

You might think a state concerned about its consistently low rank in reading achievement would have insisted its universities put in place exemplary teacher training programs.

Well, they’re trying.

In 2003, BRI worked with universities to revamp training systems for reading teachers. New programs and licensure changes for elementary education majors were adopted. Most importantly, six hours of instruction in the essential components of early literacy were mandated as a requirement for certification in elementary education.

A new study published last week by BRI shows university programs made progress, but not enough to lift Mississippi reading scores off the bottom.

The study found that the 2003 changes have been inconsistently implemented, best practices have often been ignored, and insufficient practice opportunities have been provided for developing entry-level skills for teaching reading.

The good news is that deans and faculty at the 15 public and private universities studied are responding positively to the findings, according to BRI’s Kelly Butler who authored the study. BRI cited Dr. Ann Blackwell, Dean of the College of Education and Psychology at USM, and IHL Commissioner Dr. Glenn Boyce as welcoming the evaluation. The study should serve as a “catalyst for change,” said Boyce.

“Given the low performance of Mississippi students and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining talented teachers, my desire is that the information from this study will prompt changes in pre-service and in-service programs to better meet the demands of teaching in our mostly rural and high-poverty state,” said Butler.

The study recommends “three big ideas.” These focus on implementing research-based best practices, bringing consistency to course content and delivery, and directly involving educators in development of policy and practice improvements.

The policy recommendations include designing a credentialing process for university reading instructors, developing a set of evidenced-based principles for literacy instruction, and revising the state’s program accreditation process to ensure consistent application of high standards in elementary education.

“Just as children can’t guess their way to reading well, teachers can’t guess their way to teaching well,” said Barksdale.

Implementing BRI’s recommendations, plus strengthening Bryant’s third-grade gate requirements, may finally lift our children’s reading scores off the bottom.

Say “amen” Mississippi.

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House Leadership Playing Loose with Rights, Rules

Let’s see here.

When it comes to guns, the Mississippi Constitution is a fortress for sacred rights.  But, when it comes to reading bills, the Mississippi Constitution is a ridiculous antique.

Since our marvelous state constitution allows legislators to authorize carrying guns into churches, courthouses, sporting events, etc., the Mississippi House under the leadership of Speaker Philip Gunn is passing laws left and right to enable such.

Since our fossil of a constitution allows any legislator to require every bill to be read aloud before passage, the House under Gunn’s leadership has decimated this provision by putting in a machine that reads bills so fast no-one can understand a word.

So, we stand by our constitution, except when we don’t. And those in power decide which rights are important.

Perhaps this attitude can help explain the Speaker’s power play to ignore the rules that govern House proceedings. In addition to the constitutional provision allowing bills to be read, the House rules allow members the right to challenge rulings by the Speaker. Recently, the Speaker decided one of his rulings could not be challenged.

Longtime capitol reporter Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal took exception to this. “The bottom line is that in a deliberative, legislative body, adherence to the rules is paramount to ensure fairness,” he wrote. “The rules are, in a very real sense, the only protection the minority has.”

You see, the minority in the House, particularly black members, has been using the rules to protest what they see as unprincipled actions by the majority, particularly the Speaker. Gunn sees these actions as dilatory, so he has used his power to minimize their impact… no matter the rights provided by the constitution and the rules.

Speaking of playing loose with rights and rules, the House decided it needed to study up on whether members should be allowed to continue using campaign funds for unrelated personal expenses.

When the House proposal to study the issue got to the Senate, it got upended.

“It’s really common sense,” Senate Elections Chairwoman Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, told the Clarion-Ledger. “The question you ask yourself is, ‘Is this a campaign-related expense, or an expense related to holding office?’ If the answer is yes, you’re fine. If it’s no, then you shouldn’t do it.”

“We know politicians are living out of their campaign funds,” Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville said. “That’s not allowable. It’s basically legalized bribery.”

Senators voted unanimously to ban using campaign funds for unrelated personal expenses.

Perhaps House leaders were trying to prevent a sudden change in money flow for members whose lifestyles have come to depend on access to campaign funds. Whatever, the House will get another shot at this. Members can accept the Senate’s changes, go to conference, or let the bill die.

Given their tepid faithfulness to rights and rules, it won’t be surprising if House leaders just let this bill die.

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Conservative Tax Plan Needed for Road and Bridge Repairs

Yes, the Mississippi chapter of Americans for Prosperity is right that we don’t need excessive new taxes for road and bridge repairs.

So, yes, the Mississippi Senate was right to kill the eight percent sales tax hike on fuel proposed by Senate Transportation and Highways Committee Chairman Willie Simmons.

But, Americans for Prosperity is wrong that we don’t need any additional taxes for road and bridge repairs. We desperately do.

What Americans for Prosperity should be about is promoting conservative tax plans for essential government services like road and bridge repairs.

User taxes have long been the conservative way to fund government services. You use it, you use it up, you pay for repairs and new ones. It costs more, you pay more.

Mississippi uses fuel taxes as the user taxes to pay for roads and bridges. Since fuel taxes were increased in 1987, costs to fix roads and bridges have skyrocketed as thousands of miles of 4-lane highways and hundreds of bridges have been added.

It’s time for users to pay more. Choosing the right plan to pay more is the challenge.

Raising taxes when prices go up is not a conservative plan. That’s what a sales tax does. Eight percent sales tax today on $1.99 regular gasoline would up taxes 16 cents. But, when prices jump back up to $3.50, and they will, the tax would jump to 28 cents.

The most conservative plan would be a tax that works the opposite of a sales tax, one that goes down when fuel prices go up. Americans for Prosperity should push for tax innovations such as this, not oppose taxes for essential services.

Here’s how such a plan could work.

Since prices are down, add 20 cents per gallon to fuel taxes now. Next April 30 and each year thereafter, the Mississippi Department of Revenue looks at the average price of unleaded regular gas in Mississippi.  If the average price (including taxes) is below $2.75, the full added tax stays on for the next fiscal year (July 1 through June 30). If the average price is above $2.75 but below $3.50, the added tax drops to 15 cents for the next year. If it is above $3.50, the added tax drops to 10 cents for the next year. If gas prices come back down after going up, the tax would go back up.

Americans for Prosperity should couple a conservative tax plan with its demands to make the Department of Transportation more efficient. That’s good, conservative government at its best.

Having killed Simmons’ plan, the Senate failed to come up with any plan. Instead senators passed a bond and tax bill that simply brings forward existing road and bridge funding statutes with no changes.

Now that bill is in the House where, so far, Americans for Prosperity has been working to kill it.

To really be for prosperity, Americans for Prosperity should be fighting for a conservative plan, not trying to kill the bill.

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