Congress Should Be Ready to Impeach Whoever Wins

Pogo Possum, the anti-hero of Okefenokee Swamp made famous through the satire of cartoonist Walt Kelly, once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

How true is that with regard to the presidential candidates we picked?

In its 34 years USA Today has never taken sides in a presidential election. This year it felt compelled to speak out, calling Donald Trump “unfit for the presidency.”

“Whether through indifference or ignorance,” the newspaper wrote, “Trump has betrayed fundamental commitments made by all presidents since the end of World War II. These commitments include unwavering support for NATO allies, steadfast opposition to Russian aggression, and the absolute certainty that the United States will make good on its debts. He has expressed troubling admiration for authoritarian leaders and scant regard for constitutional protections.”  It also called him erratic, ill-equipped to be commander-in-chief, a serial liar, coarse, reckless, and one who traffics in prejudice.

“Whatever you do,” the newspaper urged, “resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump.”

While the newspaper’s editorial board was unanimous about Trump’s unfitness, members were mixed on Hillary Clinton, so did not endorse her.

Colin Powell, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W. Bush, described Clinton as having “unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational.” He also called Trump a “national disgrace.”

Following Trump’s irrational 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. tweets about a former Miss Universe, lifelong Republican Michael Chertoff had had enough. The former committee counsel who helped lead the Republican charge against the Clintons over the “Whitewater scandal” and served as Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, told that Trump lacks the temperament and knowledge base to be President; he cannot control his impulses.

How could we come to this?

The bottom line is we let the two major parties lead us into a choice between two deplorable, polarizing candidates at a time the nation needs strong, unifying leadership. And, they expect us to buy into their corrupt processes and go along with whoever wins.

Many conscientious Republicans and Democrats are thinking what a fed up Pogo once said, “I is been pushed aroun’ EE-nuf!”

Folks, there’s lots more to life than Republicans vs. Democrats. So, we don’t have to play the parties’ deceitful game and be our own enemy. We can choose to put our country ahead of bad politics.

One way to do this is to overthrow the bad choices the parties have given us. We should let our Representatives and Senators know we want them to be ready to impeach and convict whoever wins in November.

No doubt majority congressional Republicans will be itching to impeach Clinton. They should be just as ready to take down Trump.

The sad reality is that either of the dull but solid vice presidential candidates, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, would be preferable to “bigmouth” Trump or “mizzus” Clinton.

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Should Retirees Trust Legislators to Properly Handle PERS?

“If what Mississippi politicians – precisely the Legislature and then-Gov. Kirk Fordice – had agreed to in 1999 had come to fruition, the state would now have a health care trust fund of an estimated $4.79 billion with $232.6 million available to spend this year,” wrote political reporter Bobby Harrison in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Alas, he said, “as of today, the state has no health care trust fund. The Legislature has spent all the funds that would have gone into the trust fund.”

There’s another, much larger trust fund the Legislature has financial responsibility for along with the Public Employees Retirement System board of directors. That’s the PERS retirement fund.

Given what happened to the health care trust fund, should retirees be worried?

While not depleted, the PERS retirement fund is far from adequately funded. On September 23rd, Bloomberg News listed the PERS fund among the ten most under-funded retirement plans in America. PERS’ most recent financial report shows its funding level at just 60.4%.

Fitch Ratings has expressed concern about PERS’ unfunded liabilities. “Unfunded pension liabilities, measured as a percent of personal income, are among the highest of the states.”

In August, Fitch downgraded Mississippi’s credit rating for upcoming bond issues. In July, Moody’s lowered Mississippi’s credit outlook to “negative.” Budget issues were part of the rationale for the ratings issues, but both ratings services cited the state’s high debt level resulting from its huge, unfunded pension liability.

One of the big challenges PERS faces comes from growing numbers of retirees drawing money out while declining numbers of employees pay into the fund.

Because of this, Mississippi says PERS “is in serious jeopardy.” It reported that every year since 2005 the number of retirees has increased while every year since 2009 the number of active employees has decreased.

This mismatch is likely to get worse with budget woes limiting new hires and a high percentage of active employees nearing retirement age. Only 37.8% of active employees are under forty, the story reported.

The level of funded liabilities depends in large part on investment returns each year. Below target returns add to the unfunded shortfall. PERS’ targeted average return to meet its obligations is 7.75% (adjusted down this year from 8%). But PERS’ investment report for June 30, 2016, showed an annual return of just 1.15%. Its five-year average return of 7.16% was 59 basis points below the 7.75% target, indicating unfunded liabilities should increase this year.

Several years ago PERS upped employer contributions to 15.75% and employee contributions to 9% of salaries, saying these high funding rates would bring funded liabilities back to 80% within 30 years. So far, little gain has been achieved.

Meanwhile, legislators have shown great fear when it comes to making hard decisions regarding PERS’ financial stability. Given how they mishandled the health care trust fund, retirees should be wary that legislators will mishandle the PERS retirement fund too.

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Mississippi Needs More Private Sector Jobs to Get off Bottom

For decades the U.S. Census Bureau has published data on income and poverty. Related news stories have consistently focused on Mississippi’s humble rankings. Just released statistics show Mississippi continues to be the poorest state with the highest poverty rate.

When stories about this hit the media, Gov. Phil Bryant’s director of communications, Clay Chandler, wrote this in an email to Mississippi Today:

“It is interesting how these statistics only seem important to the media now that Republicans have some political power. Unemployment has been reduced from 9.5 percent to 6 percent. Teen pregnancy is down 26 percent and 92 percent of third graders passed their reading test in 2016. Mississippi is recognized as the most creative state in the nation for public education by the Education Commission of the States. But Mississippi Today and other media outlets gleefully focus on the negative statistics, often produced by the Obama Administration, in an obvious attempt to discredit any gains Mississippi has made. My suggestion would be to remove the bipartisan label from your heading and print your desires.”

Blaming Obama and criticizing the media seem a real stretch. Sometimes you have to man up to reality.

It wasn’t just Mississippi media that focused on Mississippi’s poor results. 24/7 Wall Street led off its America’s Richest (and Poorest) States rankings with Mississippi at number 50, showing us with the lowest median household income ($40,593) and the highest poverty rate (22.0%).

Among neighboring states, Arkansas ranked 49 with the second lowest income figure ($41,995) and the fourth highest poverty rate (19.1%). Alabama ranked 47 with the fourth lowest income figure ($44,765) and the fifth highest poverty rate (18.5%). Louisiana ranked 44 with the seventh lowest income figure ($44,765) and the third highest poverty rate (19.6%). Tennessee ranked 42 with the ninth lowest income figure ($47,275) and the tenth highest poverty rate (16.7%).

Nationally, the average median household income was $55,775 and the poverty rate was 14.7%.

Other Census Bureau data showed 44.3% of Mississippi households earned under $35,000 compared to 31.9% nationally; 2.1% earned of $200,000 or more versus 5.8% nationally. Right at 8% received Supplemental Social Security benefits compared to 5.5% nationally; 18.2% received SNAP benefits (food stamps) versus 12.8% nationally, and 34.4% received Social Security benefits versus 30.8% nationally.

Of employed Mississippi civilians age 16 and over, 17.9% were local, state, and national government workers compared to 13.6% nationally.

Of Mississippians age 18 to 64 with jobs, 15.8% had no health insurance coverage compared to 11.6% nationally. Of those without jobs, 44.7% had no insurance versus 28.5% nationally.

All these statistics result in large part from our low workforce participation and job growth rates. Just 58.9% of Mississippians age 16 and up participate in the workforce compared to 63.9% nationally, and, since 2010, private sector jobs in Mississippi grew just 7.3% versus 13.6% nationally.

To get off the bottom we should avoid foolish criticism and man up to reality. We need more private sector jobs with benefits and more Mississippians working.

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Pathways for Unmotivated People Become Useless Pathways

“Pathways” is the popular word today for fixing broken, adolescent, and unsuccessful people.

Here are a few examples. At the federal level there are the Pathways out of Poverty Act, the National Institutes of Health Pathways to Prevention program, and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention Pathways courses. At the state level there are Governor Phil Bryant’s Mississippi Works Smart Start Career Pathway, the Mississippi Department of Education High School Graduation Pathways, and the Mississippi Community College Board’s Academic Pathways and Career Pathways. Outside of government there are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Pathways for Student Success, the Boy Scouts of America Pathway to Adventure Council, and numerous addiction and homeless programs named Pathways. 

We have so many intended-to-help, positive pathways, yet we have so many not following them. They follow other, destructive pathways – pathways to gang membership and crime, pathways to drug and alcohol addiction, pathways to sexual predation and abuse, pathways to mental illness and disorder, pathways to homelessness and poverty, etc.

It seems we have far more pathways to fix people than in past generations, as well as far more people who need fixing.

Therein lies one of our dilemmas. We have become terrific at analyzing symptoms and creating pathways to treat them, but mediocre at eliminating the destructive pathways that spread the symptoms. It’s like treating small pox but not wiping it out.

Indeed, the sorry fact is our society now embraces much of what confounds us, from entertainment media (movies, TV, Internet, magazines, novels, etc.) that glamorizes gangs, drugs, sex, and anti-social behavior, to politicians who revel in stressful discord rather than sensible solutions, to an economy that idolizes profit with little concern for the consequences – harmful behaviors, rampant layoffs, and income inequality.

In so many ways we no longer condemn but celebrate that which leads us down destructive pathways. And we do this in the name of freedom, e.g. free speech, free markets, and freedom of choice. Never has freedom been so miscast!

If we cannot wipe out destructive pathways, the only alternative is to get broken, adolescent, and unsuccessful people to choose positive pathways.

But, just getting folks to show up is often a problem, revealing our other dilemma. Too many lack the motivation to try, much less stick with the positive pathways available to them. That old saying “where there is a will, there is a way,” must have a corollary that says “where there is no will, there is no way.”

If we cannot get people to turn toward positive pathways and away from destructive pathways, then our positive pathways become useless pathways.

Still, there are proven methods to help with motivation. Providing more year-round stable, caring, educational environments for young children, more outreach and intensive case management for at-risk youth and adults, and creating more living wage jobs for at-risk individuals are examples. There are more.

Investing in methods that help motivate people to choose positive pathways is just as important as providing them those pathways.

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Are Big Money Tax Policies Best for Mississippi?

As tax collections continue to falter, threatening more mid-year budget cuts, our legislative leaders scurry to shore up the brilliance of their tax cut agenda.

They brought in an “outside expert” to say they’re on the right track.

Nicole Kaeding, an economist with the Tax Foundation, told them that adding more consumption taxes and reducing corporate taxes is the right way to go. In particular, she recommended charging sales taxes on services, such as those provided by doctors and lawyers, eliminating sales tax holidays, and upping gas taxes. She called corporate taxes the “most harmful” for growth.

Kaeding’s comments were predictable given her career in organizations sponsored by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers. Owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the U.S., the brothers have built a huge network of libertarian and conservative think tanks and political organizations to influence government policy and elections. Among these are the Cato Institute and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation that Kaeding worked for before joining the Tax Foundation. Both organizations promote the Koch brothers’ crusade to minimize taxes on the wealthy and eliminate corporate taxes. At the Tax Foundation Kaeding’s focus is making state tax codes more favorable to businesses.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn applauded Kaeding: “I think you have confirmed and affirmed many of the decisions we’ve made,” the Clarion-Ledger reported. “Reducing the corporate tax burden is a path toward economic growth and stability.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves liked her focus: “I believe our goal should be to make Mississippi the most competitive place in America to invest capital and to provide for more and better paying jobs,” the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.

Perhaps state leaders will pause and reflect on Kaeding’s data. It showed Mississippi in 2012 (before pending tax cuts) was already highly competitive among neighboring states. Mississippi’s Business Tax Climate ranked noticeably better than Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Kaeding’s slide on Corporate Income Tax rates showed Mississippi ranked among the lowest nationally, and better than all neighboring states.

If tax competitiveness is the real key to growth, then Mississippi should already be outperforming our neighbors. We’re not.

Legislators should hear presentations from economists not so indoctrinated into big money tax policies. They might find that Mississippi’s mix of poor people, hard-working middle-income families, and small businesses would fare better with a fair mix of consumption, income, and business taxes.

Indeed, the same day Kaeding spoke, Kiplinger ranked Mississippi 9th on its tax-friendly states list. Editor Sandra Block said, “Mississippi has always made our tax friendly list.”

Nobody likes taxes. They should be hard to raise. When collections are excessive, they should be cut. And, spending should be controlled so no tax dollar is spent unnecessarily.

That said, the federal tax mess is one thing, our state taxes quite another. Relying on national tax policies promoted by the rich and powerful may not best serve rural Mississippi, particularly when revenue collections are under water and state tax burdens are already competitive.

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Federal Overreach Impacts Mississippi

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was passed to eliminate unjustified discrimination based on disability. It provides protections against discrimination to disabled Americans, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

Now, the U.S. Department of Justice is telling Mississippi the ADA provides mentally ill adults an unconstrained constitutional right to community-based services.

Forced school desegregation was implemented by federal courts to eliminate illegal discrimination based on race. States that had passed laws requiring segregation by race have seen their school districts face decades of court ordered desegregation plans.

Now, in Cleveland, Mississippi, the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten a new federal judge to rule that students have a “constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education.”

Both of these cases represent overreach by the federal government, particularly by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Hopefully, seasoned federal judges will see fit to rein in such excess.

In 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “unjustified isolation” of mentally ill individuals “is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability.”  The Olmstead ruling further said the state must provide community-based mental health services when they “can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the entity and the needs of other persons with disabilities.” The key words here are “unjustified” and “resources available.”

Since 2011 the DOJ has been pushing the state to shift its emphasis and funding from state mental institutions to community-based services. While the state has built a system of community-based mental health services, most of its limited funding still goes for institutional care. The Legislature’s PEER Committee has reported several times the state would need to do more to comply with Olmstead.

In August, DOJ filed suit to force the state to comply. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch proclaimed that “Mississippi has failed people with mental illness, violating their civil rights by confining them in isolating institutions.”

Notably, the lawsuit avoids addressing the “resources available” requirement. Instead it argues that since the state provides a lower proportion of funding to community-based care than other states, it is discriminating against the mentally ill.

The Cleveland desegregation case came before U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown who was appointed to the federal bench in 2013 after 16 years practicing commercial law. In her ruling, Judge Brown forthrightly ignored prior orders by distinguished judges William C. Keady, Glen H. Davidson, and L.T. Senter to determine that Cleveland’s freedom of choice school desegregation plans were unconstitutional. She showed great deference to the arguments of DOJ expert Clare Smrekar, but little to the local school district or its expert Christine Rossell, despite guidance by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that she should as much as possible “defer to the District’s plans.”

Should Judge Brown’s new constitutional right take root, many schools and some universities face consolidation. Cleveland has appealed her ruling.

While Mississippi needs to do better in many ways, federal overreach is not the answer.

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Mississippi Needs Every Federal Dollar It Can Get

Let’s get real.

Ignore political ideology for a moment.

Mississippi is a poor state, persistently landing near the bottom on income, health, and education rankings. Many families depend heavily on federal benefits to survive. So, too does state government (44% of total spending). Many small businesses’ survival depends heavily on federally subsidized families and government.

Yes, federal spending is out of control. Yes, we have too many people on the dole. But, the reality is we desperately need every federal dollar we can get.

So, how smart was it for Mississippi to cut off SNAP (food stamp) benefits early?

Mississippi chose not to extend a waiver allowing us to pay extra SNAP benefits to unemployed, unmarried, able-bodied adults age 19 to 49 without children. Thousands will lose $190 a month unless they get a job.

Sure these people should be working. But many live in areas where there are no jobs, others where there are no jobs for their limited skill sets. Still others are paroled criminals or former drug users whom employers refuse to hire. For those with no job options, why cut them off early?

“Anything that would reduce or eliminate the means by which some customers pay for their needs couldn’t be anything but harmful,” a spokesman for Vowell’s Cash Saver grocery told Jackson’s WAPT News, adding that up to 75% of his business comes from SNAP users.

Meanwhile, these federal dollars continue to pour into other states.

Yes, a smart Mississippi might leverage every available federal dollar and use the taxes they generate to operate programs that will make future generations and governments far less dependent federal funds.

So, how smart is it for Mississippi not to go after billions of Medicaid dollars?

State officials mired in anti-Obama ideology insist we can’t afford it. But, independent studies show a smart expansion of Medicaid would more than pay for itself, generate thousands of new jobs, and put billions more federal dollars into Mississippi’s economy, not to mention improving healthcare for thousands of low-income, hard working Mississippians and their families.

Kaiser Family Foundation research also shows Medicaid expansion states had higher rates of economic growth than non-expansion states.

Medicaid is a major magnet for federal dollars. This year Mississippi taxpayers are projected to put in $949 million (down from last year) plus $521 million from providers like nursing homes and hospitals to attract $4.6 billion in federal funds. That’s terrific leverage for taxpayers.

A smart Mississippi might implement plans like Republican governors Mike Pence did in Indiana and Asa Hutchinson supports in Arkansas. (Yes, Trump’s Mike Pence. His Healthy Indiana Plan is touted as the nation’s most conservative Medicaid reform plan.)

“We’re not going to leave 220,000 people without some recourse,” said Hutchinson.

“We are expanding access to care for hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers and we’re doing it the Indiana way,” said Pence.

Perhaps it’s time to set aside ideology, like Pence and Hutchinson, and honestly ask if the current Mississippi way is the smart way.

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