Will Tax Cuts Ease Economic Distress and Health Disparities?

The 13-state Appalachian Regional Commission just released its latest county economic status rankings. Mississippi has 24 ARC counties with 12 ranked “distressed,” nine “at-risk,” three “transitional,” and none “competitive” or “attainment.” Rankings did not change from last year.

What do these rankings mean? ARC calculates the economic status of counties based on unemployment rates, per capita market income, and poverty rates. It then ranks its counties against all counties in America.

According to ARC, “distressed” counties rank in the worst 10% of all counties nationwide, “at-risk” counties in the worst 25%, “transitional” counties between the worst 25% and the best 25%, “competitive” counties in the best 25%, and “attainment” counties in the top 10%.

The eight-state Delta Regional Authority rates its counties’ economic status too. Mississippi has 47 counties in DRA. Using a slightly different methodology based on unemployment rates and per capita income, DRA rates 45 of these counties as distressed. (Note: seven DRA counties overlap with ARC; DRA rates them all distressed while ARC rates four distressed and three at-risk.)

Altogether, 64 of Mississippi’s 82 counties are served by the two regional commissions with 61 rated as having significant economic distress.

Not a pretty picture.

It gets worse.

A just released health study shows worsening infant mortality and shorter lifespans for people living in the ARC region. Two decades ago, the study reported, Appalachian rates were similar to national averages. But in recent years, the study found Appalachian infant deaths to be 16% higher and life expectancies to be 2.4 years shorter.

Another study released a year ago that reviewed 34 health measures showed Delta counties were “16% worse than those in non-Delta counties and 22% worse than those in the rest of the United States.”

In both studies, economic distress was cited as a major factor affecting health outcomes along with factors such as obesity, nutrition, smoking, and teen pregnancies.

Both ARC and DRA exist to relieve economic distress in their regions and both have initiatives to improve health and health care. (Both agencies are also targeted for elimination in the Trump budget).

Other entities have health initiatives too. For example, a partnership between Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation seeks to help counties address economic and other factors causing health disparities. Their “Health Impact Project: Advancing Smarter Policies for Healthier Communities” targets distressed counties in 14 states, including 34 counties in Mississippi.

The State of Mississippi, on the other hand, has chosen to slash budgets for agencies providing health care. In particular, cuts eliminating Department of Health services and cuts to Medicaid will negatively impact health in distressed counties.

These budget cuts result in large part because of corporate and business tax cuts that reduced state revenues. State leaders argue the tax cuts will result in business expansion, grow jobs, and improve economic status across Mississippi. As economic status improves, health should too.

But, while there is mounting evidence that health disparities are on the rise, there is no evidence that state tax cuts are improving the economic status of our many distressed and at-risk counties.

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Take the Wheel America and Enable More John McCains

Recited the Pledge of Allegiance lately?

Once upon a time in America school children were required to stand, face the flag, and recite the pledge each morning.

Remember how it goes?

“I pledge allegiance to flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

Well, did you ever mean it when you said it?

The core of the pledge was written in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy. In 1942 Congress officially adopted a slightly revised pledge. Then, in 1954, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, Congress added the words “under God.”

Bellamy’s job was to develop a flag salute as part of a celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Discovery of America by Columbus. He sought to instill a love of country in America’s school children. President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed, “Let the national flag float over every schoolhouse in the country and the exercises be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship.” Thus, on celebration day, millions of school children first recited the pledge.

Love of country is supposed to be the tie that binds us into “one nation under God, indivisible.” But, that hopeful, beautiful ideal appears gone with the wind.

A greed and power seeded sickness infects us, inflamed by swelling ill will toward one another. When political enmity pits brother against brother, family against family, church against church, and state against state there is nothing left to bind us into an “indivisible” nation.

Instead, we are fragmenting into a nation of conservatives vs. liberals, haves vs. have-nots, big business vs. common folks, straight vs. gay, black and brown vs. white, faithful vs. faithless, gun lovers vs. gun haters, and so on. We are so split into factions and antagonisms, personified by Republicans vs. Democrats, that our national government struggles to function, much less accomplish anything.

If there is to be a turn-around, courageous and forthright patriots must take the wheel.

One did so last month. Explaining his deciding vote on health care legislation, Sen. John McCain said, “We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people. We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve.”

All Americans who mean the Pledge of Allegiance when they say it, like Sen. McCain, must help.

In 1787 our pragmatic forefathers created the unique Republic we pledge allegiance to, carefully crafting it to overcome factions and antagonisms in order to serve “the people.” Elected representatives, three co-equal branches of government, and numerous checks and balances were established to force and forge mutually beneficial results, the assuaging balm essential for indivisibility.

Today, our spreading contagion contaminates the hearts and minds of too many government officials, elected and appointed, crippling support for the notion and necessity of “one nation.”

Take the wheel America and enable more John McCains!

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Will GOP Congress and Legislature Become the New “Death Panels”?

In the 1960s popular songs like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by the Hollies, “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, and “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King echoed a growing mood in the country to care for people in need. Today, the majority mood has shifted again.

Speeches last week at the Neshoba County Fair by potential gubernatorial candidates Attorney General Jim Hood and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves reflected this shift.

For example, as reported in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Hood “criticized the Legislature for cuts to the Department of Mental Health, resulting in the closure of the state’s only chemical dependency unit for adult males at a time when many citizens are dealing with opioid addiction.” Hood added, “legislative leadership neglected addressing problems in favor of providing large tax cuts.”

Reeves countered saying, ““I am proud we passed the largest tax cut in state history, and I’m not going to let them deny you the tax break so they can keep spending with reckless abandon.”

This mirrors majority political attitudes in Washington around health care. Tax cuts and costs dominate while commitment to care dwindles.

The long-term outlook for those in need of care is harsh, particularly with regard to Medicaid. Rough comments on the Jackson Jambalaya blog tell the story. “We already have more people collecting benefits than we have working,” wrote one, adding “How much longer can this go on?” Another wrote, “Quit pouring money down a piss-hole.”

Reports say Medicaid cuts under consideration in Congress plus cuts coming from the Legislature may soon start forcing retirees out of nursing homes. Nationally, Medicaid pays the costs for about 62% of seniors who live in nursing homes, about 75% in Mississippi.

Medicaid also serves nearly half a million Mississippi children, about 55% of all Medicaid recipients. In June the Clarion-Ledger wrote about seriously ill children who depend upon Medicaid. One was 13-year old Kennedy who is a type 1 diabetic. Her parents signed her up for Medicaid to afford “the nearly $5,000 a month she needs in insulin and medical supplies.”

Not getting much attention on the street is what happens when Medicaid cuts do start putting disabled retirees on the street, eliminate extraordinary care for seriously ill children, shut-down rural hospital emergency rooms, and devastate mental health care.

Republicans railed against Obamacare’s so called “death panels” for saving money at the cost of lives. Seems our cost-cutting Republican-dominated Legislature and Congress will soon take their place, unless more like state Sen. Brice Wiggins have a say.

“I’ve heard different people and groups say we just need to get rid of Medicaid,” Wiggins, chairman of the Senate Medicaid Committee, told the Clarion-Ledger. “Okay, are we not going to take care of our grandmother and grandfather who (are) 90 years old in the nursing home? Medicaid pays for the nursing home.” Earlier in the year he told Mississippi Today, “we have a duty to take care of the least fortunate.”

Meanwhile, we need some new songs like “He’s My Brother, But He Got Too Heavy” and “Lean on Somebody besides Taxpayers” and “You Ain’t Got No Friends No More.”

 

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Casinos May Get Sports Betting on the Sly

Speaking of doofuses, did you see Geoff Pender’s column entitled “Did legislative leadership really fall for sports-betting rope-a-dope?” Or the earlier Mississippi Today story entitled “Lawmakers: Didn’t think law would legalize sports betting?”

Lots of legislators are saying they didn’t know the bill they passed this year to tax fantasy sports betting may open the door for Mississippi casinos to offer and control Las Vegas style sports betting. Governor Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn are saying that was not the intent of the law.

So who are the doofuses?  Legislators and state leaders for not knowing what they were doing? Or us, if we believe there was no skullduggery involved?

Consider this.

In early November, state Commissioner of Revenue Herb Frierson told legislators that sports betting could bring in an additional $88 million to $100 million if legalized and taxed on the state level.

On November 14th, Attorney General Jim Hood General joined with attorneys general from West Virginia, Arizona, Louisiana, and Wisconsin to support New Jersey’s Supreme Court appeal that would overturn the federal law that limits sports betting to Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana (though only Nevada and Delaware allow it).

On November 26th, the Biloxi Sun-Herald editorial board took the same position as Hood, “The federal government has correctly left it up to the states to decide whether to allow casino gambling. It should do the same for sports betting.”

In February and March of this year, the House (92 to 22) and Senate (46 to 6) passed the fantasy sports tax bill that opened the door to Las Vegas style sports betting. Bryant approved it on March 13th.

Biloxi Rep. Scott DeLano told the Sun-Herald on June 27th, “We did make modifications to Gaming Control Act that would allow for the Gaming Commission to regulate sports betting if it were ever to be overturned at the federal level.”

“It could be a game changer that could provide a huge injection of new investment similar to what we saw in the early 1990s (when dockside casinos were first legalized in Mississippi),” DeLano told Mississippi Today in July.

“If the Supreme Court clears the way, I think it would be a grave, grave mistake if we allowed other states to profit from sports betting,” Sen. Sean Tindell of Gulfport told the newspaper. “If we’re behind the 8-ball, it will be to the detriment and probably failure of the casino industry in Mississippi. This could save Mississippi’s casinos.”

“Save Mississippi casinos” is the telltale. Hard to imagine those in power weren’t knowingly acting on behalf of the casinos.

The great irony lost on us doofuses is we voted in 1992 to legalize the lottery, but we never voted to legalize casinos, fantasy sports betting, or even bingo parlors. These, and the pending Las Vegas style sports betting, are all products of our legislators and governors, most of whom say they are opposed to gambling.

The political reality is legislators tend to give casinos what they want, whether straight up or on the sly. Oh, and they don’t want a state lottery.

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Save Us from Doofus Driven Debacles

“Doofus” is an intriguing and timely word. The Oxford Living Dictionary says it likely originated in North America in the 1960s and suggests it is either an alteration of the word “goofus” or from the Scottish word “doof” meaning dolt. The Online Etymology Dictionary says it is “probably related to doo-doo and goofus.”

The definitions range from “a foolish or inept person” to “a slot-witted or stupid person” to “an incompetent and stupid, though well-meaning, person.”  Synonyms include dolt, idiot, nerd, fool, idiot, airhead, birdbrain, boob.

The only doofus connection to doo-doo I could find was this, from Darrin Bell’s “Candorville” comic strip (excuse the missing graphics):  “Dear ‘journalist,’ I am offended by your biased hit-piece condemning so-called ‘Fake News.’ You wrote ‘…some of these sites’ main sources seem to be their rear ends.’ Who are YOU to say what’s fake and what’s real? I don’t know that your ‘sources’ are any more ‘real’ than my rear end. I know my rear end. I trust my rear end. You, on the other hand, are a total stranger to me.”

No surprise that fake news and doofuses are related, but the rear end trust thing got me.

A blog called The Lunatic’s Asylum had another take on doofuses and news. Speaking of “political pundits” in 2012 it said, “These people are put on the air because they have acquired, we’re led to believe, a certain expertise which is, sadly, all too obviously totally lacking. I cannot begin to count the number of times one of these professional pundits, paid attack dogs, campaign confederates, party hacks, the so-called ‘strategists’ are trotted out to examine every possible detail of even the least-interesting and least-pressing subjects in minute detail, and to put a political ‘spin’ on it all. What’s truly amazing, though, is that it’s often the SAME doofuses showing up all over the same networks, one day uttering what they consider an undisputed fact, and the very next contradicting themselves without ever a) seeming to notice, or b) making an admission that they have changed a position or assertion. This is Orwell’s Doublethink in action.”

In his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” author George Orwell defined “doublethink” as, “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed.”

Sounds so current, doesn’t it?

In Orwell’s novel, Big Brother was the tyrannical Party leader behind the doublethinkers. Today, the major political parties’ powerful special interests play that role. And, like Orwell’s Party, they primarily seek “power entirely for its own sake.”

Not that hard to detect all the doublethinking doofuses – the talking heads, the duped politicians, the ardent followers on the left and the right. The ultimate question is will the vast majority of Americans join them, or will some common sense coalition get off their rear ends and save us from doofus driven debacles?

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Do Republicans Really Care About Debt Reduction?

So, is reducing the national debt still the priority concern for Republican leaders?

Remember the rhetoric:

“The national debt threatens our way of life; it threatens the value of our national currency; and it threatens our ability to pay for entitlements that millions of Americans depend on,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2009. And that’s why it’s increasingly urgent that we focus on this growing threat — and do something about it.”

“We just passed $15 trillion in national debt, making today an infamous day in U.S. history,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in 2011. “You deserve better than leaders who are unwilling to tackle this problem.”

On the campaign trail last year, Donald Trump said he would not only stop annual deficits but would eliminate the entire $19.5 trillion national debt “over a period of eight years.”

That’s the rhetoric. What’s the reality?

In 2014 Republicans took control of the House and Senate. Budgets are the province of Congress, so budget deficits belong to them, not the President. Since 2014 budget deficits have averaged $500 billion per year. The deficit will increase to nearly $600 billion for this fiscal year.

Any day now the national debt will surpass $20 trillion ($20,000,000,000,000).

The Congressional Budget Office, based on current budget data, projects annual deficits will “grow from 3.2% GDP in 2016 to 5.2% by 2027” and the annual deficit will “cross the $1 trillion threshold in 2022.”

A 2018 budget proposal released a week ago by House leadership adds $70+ billion to defense spending and would violate the spending cap established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. While the proposal also hopes to cut $200 billion from domestic spending, the resulting budget deficit would still be between $350 and $400 billion. The Senate is unlikely to accept the House cuts to domestic spending, likely keeping the deficit high.

Then there are the President’s call for $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending and his plan to cut corporate taxes even if both increase the deficit.

Fox Business Network reported in April, “Republicans who slammed the growing national debt under Democrat Barack Obama said Tuesday they are open to Trump’s tax plan, even though it could add trillions of dollars to the deficit over the next decade.” Some Republicans have begun quoting former Vice President Dick Cheney who said “deficits don’t matter” when President George W. Bush proposed tax cuts.

The reality is as this editorial in the conservative Washington Examiner said: “Spending within our means is a simple concept, but the policy has proven difficult to enact. Both Republicans and Democrats have shown no commitment to curb overspending over the last 20 years, with nominal spending levels rising under every single presidential administration, regardless of party, dating back to President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.”

Meanwhile, the rhetoric will soon soar as Congress must once again increase the debt ceiling. There will be great wailing by Republicans, but bump the debt ceiling again they will so upward spending can continue.

The lesson here is simple. Watch what leaders do, not what they say.

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‘Shared Services’ Still No Laughing Matter

George Carlin’s word skits made me laugh… and sometimes think. His monologue about “shell shock” morphing to “battle fatigue” then to “post-traumatic stress disorder” lampoons how we have come to use less disturbing, more benign words to camouflage reality.  It came to mind when the Governor made his budget proposal.

(No, not our current governor. I wrote this and the following excerpts in my December 2009 column regarding Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposed budget.)

‘Shared services’ sounds benign…much more so than ‘consolidation’ or ‘merger’ doesn’t it?

But public CEOs didn’t smile when Haley Barbour said, “There is no reason for each of the 15 community and junior colleges to have its own back room operation, such as payroll, insurance, and purchasing. A single such administration operation should be set up, preferably combined with the same functions for IHL universities.  Shared services saves money.”

NASA didn’t camouflage its intentions about shared services.

As deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority, I was part of the team that competed to locate the NASA Shared Services Center at Stennis Space Center. In 2001, NASA began to study the benefits and costs of forming a “Consolidated Business Services Organization” to serve its ten facilities across the country. By April 2003, NASA concluded that such consolidation could improve efficiency and save money.  NASA decided to use public-private competition to implement its plan, a process it called competitive sourcing.

To compete, Stennis Space Center added Mississippi and Louisiana as public financial partners. Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), an eminent information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing company, became our private operating partner.

In 2005, this partnership won the competition based on both the best price and CSC’s strong performance record.  To NASA, who was to do the work was as important as price.

Today, NASA still has multiple facilities, but its one shared services center in South Mississippi is saving taxpayers millions of dollars annually. What services were consolidated?  Accounts payables and receivables; payroll; travel reimbursements; HR services and training support; IT services; and procurement.

Commercial banks figured this out long ago. Central operations centers provide back room services to multiple banks, sometimes in multiple states…consolidation that has saved banks millions in overhead costs without reducing market presence.

There are no operating or financial reasons for eight universities and 15 colleges – or 142 state agencies, 152 school districts, 82 counties, and 200 plus municipalities for that matter – to maintain separate back room operations.

The obvious lesson is that public CEOs could save lots of money through shared services with no harm to teaching or service functions. A no-brainer, right?

As president of the College Board I appointed a task force to develop a “no-brainer” IT shared services plan for universities.  University CEO resistance was stultifying. Apparently, for many public CEOs, controlling their own stuff is far more important than efficiency.

And, sharing lessons control.

“You wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff?” smirked George Carlin to get a laugh.

(Our Legislature has so far laughed off shared service proposals, despite conservative Republicans gaining super majorities in the House and Senate. Politically, it’s easy to squeeze budgets, but hard to truly rightsize government.)

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