Negativity, Factionalism Undercut Trust and Prosperity

A lament posted on Facebook by a retired teacher from Madison County: “I will NOT vote for anyone who can only use negative remarks about their opposition instead of their qualifications for the office. I thought that was the reason for running for a political office. SHOW ME YOUR CREDENTIALS.”

Keeping that in mind, consider this. A friend who teaches entrepreneurship worldwide has conducted a study of the characteristics of nations and their poverty levels. He said his research shows that nations that practice Christian values are more prosperous and have less poverty. His working thesis is that there is greater mutual trust and neighbor-helping-neighbor in such countries.

Paul addressed both of these points in Romans (14:13, 19 ESV): “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother….So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

Our founding fathers promoted the concepts in Paul’s message. For example, President George Washington’s unforgettable Farewell Address weaves these concepts throughout.

Washington counseled against “misrepresentations” by “designing men,” saying, “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

Later he said, “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

So, 219 years after Washington’s message how well have we done?

Misrepresentations abound in politics. Indeed, modern political campaigns are designed to attack opponents’ character, credibility, and credentials. Such messages gain more social and traditional media coverage than positive messages. And, we seem to respond to negativity more than we do to positiveness, e.g., today’s Republican presidential candidates gain more in polls when they go on the attack.

Mounting portions of our population grow up without moral or civic instruction. Those who profess Christian values are in decline and those who practice such values even more so. Indeed, our society tolerates, or perhaps prefers, immorality as indicated by the rise of sexuality and profanity in movies, advertising, and music videos. At the same time, American prosperity is fragmenting, e.g. more people qualify for food stamps than ever before.

We tend to be more divided, more hateful, and less willing to work together or seek mutual benefit than in years past.

The dominance of one faction over another, especially when motivated by revenge, “is a frightful despotism,” warned Washington.

We will only reverse course when we discipline ourselves and sway others to choose local, state, and national leaders willing to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

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Initiative 42 May Be a Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

At forums across the state held by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, proponents stubbornly argue that Initiative 42 is simply about getting the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) fully funded. That’s what their petition said. That’s what their upcoming, expensive advertising campaign is likely to say.

But that’s not what their proposed constitutional amendment says:

“To protect each child’s fundamental right to educational opportunity the State shall provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools. The chancery courts of this State shall have the power to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief.”

You don’t see “full funding” or “MAEP.” That’s because the initiative’s masterminds crafted something far more provocative to put in the constitution.

What, pray tell, is an “adequate and efficient system of free public schools?” No such “system” is mentioned in the existing MAEP statute or anywhere state law.

Also, should “the State” fail to, or unacceptably to proponents, establish this “adequate and efficient system,” the initiative will allow a chancery court to do so by “appropriate injunctive relief.” No doubt any rulings would be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Is their intent to put control of our schools, not just “full funding,” under the courts instead of our elected representatives?

What judges will be constitutionally obligated to order would be wide-ranging based on the wording of the amendment.

By requiring an “adequate” system, the amendment sets the stage for a court to order school districts to offer pre-K education. A growing body of research shows no public school system can provide an “adequate” education without pre-K.

By requiring an “efficient” system, the amendment sets the stage for a court to order consolidation of school districts. While there are numerous efficient school districts, the state school system as a whole is not efficient. Just having two or more school districts in most counties is highly inefficient.

By requiring “the State,” not the Legislature, to implement its provisions, the amendment eliminates from the constitution the Legislature’s responsibility to pass laws and appropriations for the benefit of public schools. This is a peculiar change. Currently, all duties and responsibilities in the constitution are assigned specifically to the executive, judicial, or legislative branch of government. What do the masterminds really intend by this change?

“Initiative 42 is only about fully funding MAEP,” they will get proponents to say.

But the wily amendment the masterminds crafted is so broad, so undefined in state law, and so susceptible to judges’ preferences that reasonable people should be concerned that it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Are Initiative 42 supporters being misled by their masterminds?

Ask why they didn’t draft simple language saying “fully fund MAEP,” why they divorce the Legislature from school funding and oversight, what they really mean by the words “adequate and efficient system,” and why they give the courts authority over much more than full funding.

Don’t be deceived like Aesop’s sheep.

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Legislature Beating MAEP Proponents in Court

Legislature 2, MAEP proponents 0.

That’s the score as judges bat around lawsuits surrounding efforts to get the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) fully funded.

Last week the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that nobody had standing to appeal Attorney General Jim Hood’s ballot title for Initiative 42A, the Legislature’s alternative to the citizen-sponsored Initiative 42. Proponents of Initiative 42, hoping to mandate full funding for MAEP, had gotten Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd to rewrite the title.

So, the 42A title goes back Hood’s language, “Should the Legislature provide for the establishment and support of effective free public schools without judicial enforcement?”

This will be on the November ballot along with the 42 title, “Should the State be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?” Missing from this title, but included in the underlying amendment, is a provision that gives chancery courts authority to enforce the amendment.

Last month Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary ruled former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and allies were incorrect in believing state law already requires the Legislature to fully fund MAEP. He threw out their lawsuit based on Section 37-151-6 (MS Code, 1972), “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).”

Essentially, Singletary, a former legislator himself, ruled “shall” in this case doesn’t mean “shall.”

“While this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the term ‘shall’ generally denotes a mandate, our Mississippi courts have allowed for exceptions to this mandatory interpretation of ‘shall’ where it ‘is necessary to carry out the purpose of the legislature, effect justice, secure public or private rights, or avoid absurdity.”

Singletary based his ruling on another statute that reads, “In any year in which the MAEP is not fully funded,” the Legislature will decide how to allocate funds. He ruled this statute took precedence over the other.

The legal language in question comes from Senate Bill 2604, authored in 2006 by then Sen. Mike Chaney (now Insurance Commissioner). It sets forth three sections in a row regarding MAEP funding. The first is the “shall fully fund” paragraph. The second is a lengthy paragraph detailing how much the Legislature “shall” appropriate in fiscal years 2007, 2008, and 2009 “if sufficient funds are not available to fully fund” MAEP. The third section, the one Singletary relied upon, simply tells how to allocate funds in years MAEP is not fully funded.

One logical reading of these sections, that keeps them from contradicting each other, is the Legislature intended to fully fund MAEP, but provided for phase-in funding over four years, and the allocation paragraph simply references those specific phase-in years.

Musgrove is asking Singletary to reconsider his ruling, so the 2 – 0 score could change.

Of course the real contest is in the hands of voters. If they pass Initiative 42, giving courts oversight of school funding, there will be lots more for judges to bat around.

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Bryant Serious about Public Contracting Reforms

Gov. Phil Bryant continues to take seriously the reform of public contracting in Mississippi.

Last November, Bryant, responding to the contract scandal that erupted from the arrest of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, established a special task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) contracting and procurement processes.

In December, the five-member task force, led by Andy Taggart and Judge Robert Gibbs, submitted initial findings and recommendations to the Governor, who promptly transmitted them to the Legislature.

Representative Jerry Turner of Baldwyn incorporated many recommendations into tough legislation to revamp state contracting and procurement laws. Senator Nancy Collins of Tupelo and her colleagues weakened Turner’s bill, but still adopted significant reforms.

One key task force recommendation and reform adopted by the Legislature was to revamp the membership of the Personal Service Contract Review Board (PSCRB). The intent was to take review of contracts like those abused by Epps away from active state bureaucrats and put oversight under individuals with professional private sector contracting experience or with equivalent public sector experience but no longer active in state government.

Turner’s bill called for the Governor and the Lt. Governor to appoint two members each. The revamped PSCRB was to take charge July 1, 2014.

In June, Gov. Bryant appointed Bill Moran, a retired FMC Technologies site manager, and Rita Wray, a health care consultant and former deputy director of the Department of Finance and Administration.

Lt. Gov. Reeves has not made his appointments. In early July his office said he was “carefully considering his appointments….This is an important board that needs quality individuals to oversee how taxpayers’ money is spent.” Friday his office said he would make appointments by the end of August.

Meanwhile, the short-handed board held its first meeting in July. The lack of a complete board poses a problem because of a peculiar requirement injected into PSCRB operations by the Turner:

“Any contract submitted to the Personal Service Contract Review Board for review and approval shall be presumed to be approved if the Personal Service Contract Review Board does not object to the contract within thirty (30) days of the agency’s submission of the contract.”

Should the short-handed PSCRB be unable to meet due to lack of a quorum, any number of contracts could slip through without official review because of the 30 day loophole.

The task force issued its final recommendations to Governor Bryant on June 26. They called for the 30 day rule to be changed along with additional reforms.

The Governor followed through last week on two additional reforms, issuing executive orders requiring MDOC to professionalize its purchasing office and requiring agencies to improve transparency by posting online an analysis describing why a personal or professional services contract was awarded.

Stamping out cronyism and corruption in public contracting will take a serious, sustained, all-in approach from the Governor and the Legislature.

 

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Frierson Takes Hard Looks at Tax Breaks and Initiative 42

You’ve got to admire Herb Frierson. There aren’t many straight shooters in Mississippi politics anymore.

Back in 2013, the House Appropriations Committee chairman called the increasing number of tax breaks coming out of the Republican legislature a big problem, noting the legislature had no way to determine the cumulative impact of such cuts over time.

As reported in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the legislature passed numerous tax breaks over a four-year period, including tax credits related to business inventories, sales tax breaks for developers building malls (which they were likely to build anyway), and a sales tax holiday for the purchase of hunting equipment.

Two weeks ago, Journal political writer Bobby Harrison reported, Legislative Budget Committee Director Debbie Rubisoff provided a look at the impact of these cuts when she addressed Frierson’s committee:

“The early projection is for state revenue to grow by 3.4% during fiscal year 2017 (July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017). But because of previous tax breaks passed by the Legislature, 2.2% of that projected growth, or an estimated $126 million, will no longer be in the revenue stream.”

In other words, because of the tax breaks, projected net revenue growth will be just 1.2%. And, according to a chart Rubisoff provided, that $126 million deduction will swell to at least $315 million as the inventory tax benefit and others get fully implemented.

“When I said there are consequences,” Frierson said, “these are the consequences.”

Rubisoff’s information comes as revenue collections for the just ended 2015 fiscal year were reported to be up 2.4%. The legislature has budgeted a 3% revenue increase for this fiscal year. But, with the tax breaks Rubisoff described kicking in and Mississippi’s economy showing sluggish growth, actual revenue growth could come in noticeably lower.

Needless to say, none of this suggests the huge tax cuts proposed earlier this year – eliminating the personal income tax or the business franchise tax – make any fiscal sense at all.

Nor does it provide the means to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, another concern Frierson addressed.

If voters approve Initiative 42 this fall, “my recommendation would be that we fully fund it next year,” Frierson told the Clarion-Ledger. “So we need a plan for cuts.” (Despite what proponents say, Initiative 42 makes no provisions to phase-in funding.)

Given the state’s unsettled revenue status, Frierson has directed agency heads to provide his committee information about how they would cut their budgets or raise fees to cover cuts of up to 7.8% in fiscal year 2017. (The Department of Education and Medicaid were excluded.)

While most politicians are campaigning on big tax cuts or big new spending on education, Frierson has taken a more sober approach. No doubt the Poplarville Republican is taking arrows from both sides for his hard looks at tax breaks and Initiative 42, but it’s refreshing to see at least one state leader takes the funding of state government seriously.

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Blanton, Court Make Higher Rates Likely for MPC Customers

For years, communities, businesses, and consumers in southeast Mississippi have counted on Mississippi Power Company for far more than electricity. The company has been a valued partner in economic development projects, disaster recovery (especially after Katrina), fights to save military bases, and more. Further, company leaders frequently provide effective leadership for statewide initiatives.

For Hattiesburg oilman Thomas Blanton and others to gloat because they got an activist supreme court to strike down a rate mitigation plan for the company’s new Kemper power plant, and portray this longtime, good corporate citizen as criminal, is over the top.

Indeed, communities, businesses and consumers may want to take a sober look at what happened.

Blanton intervened in a legal dispute between the company and the Mississippi Public Service Commission about rate increases to fund construction costs for the innovative Kemper lignite plant. The company and the commission negotiated a settlement, but the Mississippi Supreme Court elected to separately consider Blanton’s intervention. Although Blanton’s direct arguments had little merit (see Justice Jess Dickinson’s dissent), Presiding Justice Mike Randolph elected to look beyond those arguments and got a majority of the Supreme Court to rule 5-4 to deny the rate increases. As suggested by the close vote, commission actions cited by Randolph’s stern opinion were debatable. What’s not debatable is the negative impact. While the ruling gives customers a refund and temporary rate relief, it makes higher rates likely, and it undermines the company financially (which handicaps the company’s ability to respond aggressively to disasters or economic development opportunities).

The high cost of the Kemper plant, named Plant Ratcliffe, has concerned many. The company’s parent, Southern Company, has had to write off $2 billion from cost over-runs, and lend the company cash after South Mississippi Electric Power Association decided not to purchase 15% of the plant.

Despite concerns, Plant Ratcliffe is a reality and customers must appropriately fund it… that’s the law. The dispute in court was not over building the plant, but about increasing rates to cover costs during construction, a move intended mitigate rates over the long haul.

Plant Ratcliffe is now coming online (just as two Plant Watson units get retired), so the company may use conventional, post-construction rate filings to recover capital investments and operating costs.

Part of the plant already generates electricity from natural gas. The company said it will seek an interim rate increase of 18% related to these costs. The part of the plant that will burn synthesis gas derived from lignite coal will come online early next year. The company said it will, then, seek an additional rate increase.

Hopefully, the commission and the company will negotiate, as they did before, a rate plan to mitigate the impact on customers. The alternative may be a 40% rate increase in the near future.

A financially weak utility, requiring higher rates than those negotiated previously, benefits nobody. Customers should look to Blanton and the court if that happens.

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Are Schools Teaching the Way to Peace, Liberty, and Safety?

“Kids get abysmal grade in history,” read the headline. “Most U.S. high school seniors have a poor grasp of the nation’s history,” read the story’s first line.

Diane Ravitch, historian, NYU professor, and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education said, “Our ability to defend – intelligently and thoughtfully – what we as a nation hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of what we hold dear.…Clearly, far too many high school seniors have not learned even a modest part of it.”

Not just high school seniors, though. The same applies to many citizens of all ages.

In his first inaugural address Thomas Jefferson listed the principles Americans should hold dear, then said:

“These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

Who recalls Jefferson’s admonition? Or the principles he cited?

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political. Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none. The support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns, and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies. The preservation of the General government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home, and safety abroad. A jealous care of the right of election by the people, a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided. Absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of the despotism. A well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace, and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them. The supremacy of the civil over the military authority. Economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burdened. The honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith. Encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid. The diffusion of information, and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason. Freedom of religion; freedom of the press; and freedom of person, under the protection of the Habeas Corpus. Trial by juries impartially selected.”

Are our schools teaching these core American principles? Putting our children on the “road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety?” Are we committed to that road?

 

Read the headlines.

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