Hospital Closings and Healthcare for Working Poor Becoming Campaign Issues

“Half of Mississippi’s rural hospitals at risk of closing, report says,” read the startling headline in Mississippi Today.

“Thirty-one of Mississippi’s 64 rural hospitals, or 48%, are at ‘high financial risk,’ according to a national report of rural hospitals from independent consulting firm Navigant,” read the article.

Perhaps even more startling was this from an article in News Mississippi: “Four hospitals have closed in the past five years and five more are threatening closure. Expanding Medicaid would ensure that Mississippians continue to have access to local trauma centers and proper healthcare, however, (Senate Medicaid Committee Chairman Senator Brice) Wiggins said the hospitals need to work it out on their own.”

“Work it out on their own.” Hmmm.

Public and private hospitals in Mississippi, excluding state and federally owned hospitals, employee over 50,000 people with average salaries of $46,700. Apparently, sustaining these high paying jobs in rural communities is not a state priority.

On the other hand, the state was willing to pony up $600 million in incentives to attract the Continental AG tire plant with 2,500 lower paying jobs.

Hmmm. At that rate 50,000 high paying hospital jobs should be worth $12 billion in state support.

The Continental plant will be a huge economic engine for the Hinds County urban area. Hospitals, on the other hand, are huge economic engines in rural communities, providing millions in economic impact over and above the salaries they pay. (A Mississippi Hospital Association study estimated Mississippi hospitals provide 119,908 direct and indirect jobs with over $15 billion in economic impact.)

Here’s the real clinker in this story.

Over the past several years, hospital representatives have met with Wiggins and other state and legislative leaders to try and come up with a solution to keep rural hospitals viable AND provide better and more affordable healthcare to Mississippi’s working poor.

One option discussed would, indeed, let hospitals work it out on their own. It would change Medicaid similar to what Vice President Mike Pence did while governor of Indiana plus revamp the Medicaid managed care model. In this option hospitals, not state taxpayers, would pick up the tab (hospitals already pay the state over $280 million in annual assessments to support Medicaid).

No option discussed, however, was acceptable to Mississippi Senate leadership and, apparently, remains that way with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in his campaign for governor. “I’m opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi,” he said, apparently seeing no difference between Pence’s conservative “Healthy Indiana” plan and generic Obamacare.

Two opponents for governor, however, seem to think Republicans need a conservative “Healthy Mississippi” solution to the growing crises for rural hospitals and uninsured workers.

State Rep. Robert Foster of Hernando told the Clarion-Ledger he will look for “an innovative way of bringing health care that is affordable to the working class Mississippians that are left out right now.”

Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr., told the Meridian Star, “I think we have a health crisis and we have to address it. Our hospitals have got to be viable and strong and citizens have got to have access.”

Well, apparently there is a “Healthy Mississippi” way to work it out, but not with current leadership. That makes the issues of hospital closings and healthcare for the working poor significant campaign issues.

Advertisements
Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

The New Republican Reality: Debt, Debt, and More Debt

“The national debt has passed a new milestone, topping $22 trillion for the first time,” reported the Associated Press. “The Treasury Department’s daily statement showed Tuesday that total outstanding public debt stands at $22.01 trillion. It stood at $19.95 trillion when President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017.”

“It looks like a $9 trillion time bomb is ready to detonate, a corporate debt load that has escalated thanks to easy borrowing terms and a seemingly endless thirst from investors,” CNBC reported.

“For the first time ever, consumer credit has risen above $4 trillion,” said news accounts citing a Federal Reserve release. Since 2013 there has been a $1 trillion increase in the amount of debt Americans are carrying.

“Student loan debt in the U.S. more than doubled in the past 10 years, hitting an all-time high of $1.36 trillion in the third quarter of 2018,” according to consumer credit reporting agency Experian.

All these debt bubbles pose high risk for another economic meltdown. The NY Times quoted 76-year-old influential fund manager Jim Rogers predicting a crash that will be “the biggest in my lifetime.”

Shhh. All these peak debt levels have occurred with Republicans in control of the Congress and White House. 

No surprise really. Take the national debt. Republicans like to talk “eliminate the deficit” and “reduce the debt” and “balance the budget,” but since George H.W. Bush was president have never followed through with the walk. It’s really the height of hypocrisy these days when they talk down Democrats about spending and deficits.

Remember Donald Trump’s campaign promise to eliminate the debt? In a March 31, 2016, interview with the Washington Post, he promised to eliminate $19 trillion in debt in eight years. Instead it has gone up $3 trillion.

Rising interest rates and escalating debt are a formula for economic turmoil if not collapse. Debt watchdog, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, reported in December that interest on the national debt “will nearly triple over the next 10 years, soaring from $315 billion in 2018 to $914 billion in 2028.” Soon interest payments alone with top $1 trillion annually.

“Unless we make the hard decisions to close the structural imbalance between spending and revenues, federal debt will climb to unsustainable levels and put America’s economy and future prosperity at risk,” the foundation declared.

Those decisions include uncomfortable spending cuts matched with undesirable tax increases. As we learned from the failed Obama-Boehner “grand bargain” that followed the failed Simson-Bowles plan, such decisions will not happen. The politics are too tough for our elected officials. Republicans can only cut taxes, not raise them, and Democrats can only increase spending, not cut it.

Sigh. As Pogo told us, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

P.S.  Mississippi is not immune to the debt dilemma. State financial reports show our public debt continues to grow. The two largest components, bonds and notes payable at $5.6 billion and the PERS unfunded pension liability at $16.9 billion, total $22.5 billion. That’s up from $19.7 billion in 2012.

Shhh. This occurred, too, with Republicans in control of the Legislature and Governor’s Mansion. 

Care about this stuff? Download former Sen. Tom Coburn’s deficit reduction plan: https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=682791, or the Simpson-Bowles plan: https://www.srainternational.org/sites/default/files/documents/Fiscal%20Commission%20-%20Moment%20of%20Truth.pdf

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

GOP Brawl Brewing with Reeves, Waller and (Maybe) McDaniel

“Governor’s race just got interesting,” read a text message the day after columnist Geoff Pender announced Bill Waller, Jr., will enter the race.

Oh, the just retired Supreme Court Justice deciding to take on frontrunner Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Republican primary stirs a lot of interest. But adding state Sen. Chris McDaniel to the mix really whips it up.

Waller was one of the candidates I wrote about 18 months ago that pragmatic Republican leaders were considering as fears mounted that Reeves could not beat Democrat Jim Hood in November. Those fears only increased as early polling data showed Reeves trailing the Attorney General.

As I wrote, Waller comes with a “substantive resume” that could play well with military friendly, Bible-belt Mississippians. He spent 30 years in the Army guard and reserves, rising to Brigadier General. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a deacon at First Baptist Church in Jackson.

A Mississippi State University graduate, Waller got his law degree from Ole Miss and rose to become a well-regarded, conservative Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In the aftermath of Pender’s revelation, political pundits generally agreed Waller will be a credible candidate able to raise money and positioned to tap dissatisfaction with Reeves.

But, it won’t be easy. Reeves has won statewide Republican primaries since 2003, first as State Treasurer, then as Lt. Governor in 2011. He has catered to the tea party Republican base and has $7 million is his political kitty. Waller, as a non-partisan judicial candidate, has never won a party primary and starts with an empty kitty.

Now throw in McDaniel. The twice-defeated U.S. Senate candidate has a rabid ultra-conservative base and access to big outside funding that would make him a serious factor in any Republican primary. With Waller pulling disgruntled GOP voters from Reeves, McDaniel’s base could easily get him into a runoff.

This becomes all the more likely if President Donald Trump endorses McDaniel, apparently a real possibility. McDaniel told WAPT, “He’s shown an inclination to support me whatever I decide.”

Waller will have to move fast on a number of fronts. He must quickly raise millions; gain positive name ID with GOP voters; gain traction with the tea party conservative base, e.g., he may fare well with pro-life and pro-gun voters, but be viewed skeptically by anti-tax voters if he runs on a pro-infrastructure platform as expected; and, convince primary voters he has the best chance to beat Hood in November.

Reeves’ challenge will be to hold off business, Baptist, Bulldog, and military defections to Waller while (maybe) fighting McDaniel for the tea party votes he has worked so hard to corral,  then exit the primaries strong enough to take on Hood. Getting Gov. Phil Bryant’s endorsement was a plus.

McDaniel will need lots of outside money and Trump all in to win.

How all this will play out is anybody’s guess. Could behind-the-scenes scheming head off a Waller or McDaniel candidacy at the last minute? Can Reeves cut off their avenues of support?

No longer the only anti-Reeves alternative, Hood can only watch and hope a down and dirty Republican primary brawl enhances his chances in November.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

More than Presidents Day Has Morphed into the Mundane

Established in 1885 on February 22nd to venerate George Washington’s birthday, Presidents Day in 1971 was moved to the third Monday in February to accommodate three-day weekends for federal employees. It then morphed into a celebration of all presidents. Today it has morphed again into just another day when the Post Office and banks are closed. 

Much else our nation used to venerate has morphed into the mundane since that day in 1776 when the Second Continental Congress formally declared our independence from England. In so doing these forefathers adopted a Declaration that laid down a principled creed to guide new nation that was to stand the test of time.

It began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

By 1789 our founding fathers had drafted, and states ratified, an extraordinary constitution based on these principles that established a radical government “of the people” designed to forever secure those Creator-endowed rights.

In writing the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” wherein the English physician turned political philosopher cited God-made natural law to assert that all men are created equal, the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people, and “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” 

Our founding fathers recognized the favor of Providence in the founding of our special nation. The Continental Congress put on the Great Seal of the United States that they adopted in 1782 the inscription Annuit Coeptis, meaning he (God) has favored our undertakings.

In 1789, George Washington, our first president, gave his First Inaugural Address, saying therein, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.”

Today, those ties, that creed, that bound us together as one nation, under God, have morphed into bones of contention and dissent. 

Many reject the notion of a creator, wiping “God” and “Creator” from school textbooks, ousting religious expressions from public places, and belittling biblical concepts of morality.  

Indeed, it has become politically incorrect to side with the Bible. 

Hmmm. 

If we the people now reject the notion of a creator, do we not also reject the notion of creator-endowed rights? What then are the underlying principles of our precious constitution? 

Some say liberty, alone, is a sufficient principle. But, as Locke asserted and Alexis de Tocqueville researched, “liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”  Indeed, history shows liberty unconstrained by morality decays into indulgence and depravity.

Perhaps we have already morphed to that point with our rampant pornography, predatory abuse, sex trafficking, senseless murders, epidemic lawlessness, unbridled greed, drug culture, and so on.

Martin Luther King dreamed that one day we the people would rise up together and live out the true meaning of our national creed. To accomplish this dream, he said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

As belief in a creator who favors America’s undertakings dims, shadows abound, cast by the dividers, takers, abusers, and naysayers whom more and more of us tolerate and some exalt. It will take an uprising of men and women of goodwill walking in the light to morph back toward our founders’ vision. 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Constructive Conservatism Needed to Thwart Rise of Socialism

What would Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, think of capitalism in America today?

You see, it was Smith’s notion that despite natural greed, individuals in a free, capitalistic society would be led by “reason, principle, conscience” to act morally and compassionately. Capitalism would be the economic mechanism by which wage earners and the middle class would accumulate wealth. While certainly true historically in the United States, and much of the free world, that no longer seems to be the case here, especially since the Great Recession.

“Only upper income families have median wealth greater than prior to the Great Recession” – Pew Research Center, Nov. 1, 2017.

“The income share of the poorest half of Americans is declining while the richest have grabbed more. In Europe, it’s not happening.” – Vox.com, July 29, 2018.

“The US Congressional Research Service says the income share of the richest 1% of Americans reached 19.6% last year. It never rose above 10% in the first four decades after the Second Word War.” – The Telegraph, Feb. 5, 2019.

And, so what, you say?

“According to a new poll from Gallup, young Americans are souring on capitalism. Less than half, 45 percent, view capitalism positively,” CNBC reported last August. “Meanwhile, 51 percent of young people are positive about socialism.”

Perhaps you noticed the leftward swing in the mid-term elections last year. According to Axios.com, “The Democratic Party’s base is rallying around calls for massive social welfare programs like Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee and a Green New Deal — all of which would cost trillions of dollars and potentially bust the budget,” which they say “is not that big of a deal.”

This trend is not new. In 2011 BBC News Magazine published an article that declared, “As a side-effect of the financial crisis, more and more people are starting to think Karl Marx was right.”

To counter this trend, what have conservatives done? So far, they continue to promote rapacious capitalism, facilitate corporate greed, and provide fuel to energize the left.

In 1923, Sir John Skelton, penned a series of anti-socialism articles challenging fellow conservatives to step up and face the social and economic challenges facing his nation. He called this approach “constructive conservatism” and said that growing the wealth of wage-earners through fair wages and property ownership should be conservative’s top priority to thwart the appeal of socialism.

In today’s parlance that means big business should be hiring more people and increasing wages rather than funding stock buy-backs, expensive mergers, and escalating corporate salaries (now 270 times average wage earner salaries; up from 20 times in 1970.) Crumbs to the middle class from massive tax cuts for huge corporations and the wealthy and low-wage jobs with no benefits and no future won’t dent the rise of socialism.

So, who are the champions of constructive conservatism in America today?

Well, John Kasich may come closest. Quoting conservative Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, he said capitalism without compassion is “bankrupt,” but looks more to government intervention than moral business behavior.

An ironic call for “moral capitalism” to combat socialism comes from Rep. Joe Kennedy (yes, one of those Kennedys). “We have to do a better job addressing the economic needs of working class and middle class voters,” he told the Associated Press.

Some form of constructive conservatism will be needed to thwart the rise of socialism.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

What a Disappointing Tax Season

Started your tax return yet? I have and it’s so disappointing.

I had looked forward to the simpler, easier tax filing promised by President Donald Trump’s tax cuts. Take the increased standard deduction and forget all that work to compile medical and dental expenses, taxes paid, interest paid, charitable contributions, and so on. This was going to be a breeze.

Not.

Just realized I still have to gather up all that detail for my Mississippi tax return.

Blah!

The other disappointment was my federal taxes on personal income are about the same as last year. No big tax cut there. The only thing making a difference for me this year will be the 20% tax cut on qualified business income. My little bit of business income will save me a few tax dollars.

Of course, we all knew Trump’s tax cut was really about slashing business taxes and easing taxes for high income individuals.

That’s kinda the same story at the state level.

I get to enjoy zero taxes on my first $1,000 of taxable income. Woo-hoo!

That’s where we are on phasing in the elimination of the first tax bracket for personal income taxes. That first bracket used to charge 3% tax on the first $5,000 of income. Now the first $1,000 is zero percent with the remaining $4,000 still at 3%. It will be four more years before it fully phases in and we get to enjoy the full benefit of that $150 tax cut (3% times $5,000).

Meanwhile, the majority of Mississippi tax cuts for business are in full force, e.g., the inventory tax cut, tourism project tax rebates, sales and use tax cuts, and corporate tax cuts.

In case you were wondering about some of these things, the Mississippi Department of Revenue published a notice last week with the following information.

In general with regard to Trump’s tax cuts: “Many of the aspects of the federal legislation will not affect Mississippi taxpayers as Mississippi has its own statutory provisions for many of the changes. Therefore, the impact on Mississippi revenues will not be as significant as many other states.”

With regard to increased federal standard deductions and elimination of person exemptions: “Neither of these changes affects Mississippi, as our statutes are specific to these items.”

With regard to the 20% deduction for qualified business income: “Mississippi does not have a statutory provision for this deduction so it will be not be an allowable deduction on the Mississippi return.”

With regard to alimony payments: “The federal law change repeals the deduction for alimony payments and the inclusion in income of the alimony payments to the recipient effective for divorce and separation agreements entered into or modified after December 31, 2018. Mississippi follows the federal rules for inclusion and deductions of alimony payments as provided in Sections 27‐7‐15(2)(e) and 27‐7‐18.

With regard to moving expenses: “Moving expenses will no longer be deductible except for active duty members of the military based on military orders. Section 27‐7‐18(2) provides the deduction from Mississippi income taxes in accordance with federal provisions.”

To see the entire notice go to https://www.dor.ms.gov/Pages/Individual-Notices.aspx and download “Tax Effects From The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

Sigh.

So much for using my big tax refund to splurge on something.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Moving to Market Based Testing in High Schools Makes Sense

Rep. Tom Miles of Forest is on to something. With regard to tests required for high school graduation, he wants to move from an education bureaucracy based approach to a market based approach.

A little background.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Both have required public schools to implement intensive testing from the early grades through high school to track student progress. At the high school level, ESSA requires states to administer end-of-course exams in reading/language arts, mathematics, and science.

It’s up to the various states to decide if passing these tests is required to earn a high school diploma. Mississippi added a history exam and made passing the tests a requirement for graduation. After lots of complaints, in 2015, the Mississippi State Board of Education began allowing students who fail the subject matter tests to take the relevant sections of the ACT as an alternative.

Miles wants to abandon the state developed subject matter tests and go strictly with the ACT.

Such a move would begin to align high school testing with actual market opportunities for graduating students, i.e., going to college or getting a job. The ACT is the ticket to college admission as well as to financial aid.

Christine Davidson, a teacher and mother of a college bound student, explained to the Clarion-Ledger, “No college is saying here’s $1,500 for what you’ve earned (on a state test). No college is saying, ‘here’s $2,000 for your advanced score.’ But a difference of two points on the ACT can amount to $2,000 more.”

Missing from Miles’ approach is the equivalent ticket to getting a job, since not all high school graduates go to college.

More and more industries and college technical training programs require employees to take the national WorkKeys test which assesses a person’s readiness for employment in different types of jobs. In response to this demand, more and more communities are moving to become “work ready” communities.

For example, the Daily Journal reported Axiall, Tronox, Kemira, NauticStar, True Temper, Mueller, Yokohama, and Toyota in its region use WorkKeys to find potential employees. East Mississippi Community College now requires a Silver Level WorkKeys score for admission into its manufacturing technology programs.

“Work ready” communities provide WorkKeys to high school students. Twenty Mississippi counties are now certified Work Ready communities. Another 19 are in process, with more signing up every day.

“Part of our sector strategy plan is to give WorkKeys to seniors in all 89 high schools in the 27 counties composing the Mississippi Partnership Workforce Development Area,” said Bill Renick WIOA Division Director.

Regrettably, the market rejects many Mississippi high school graduates. Too many are not prepared for university, community college, or middle skill jobs. We need far more 21 and up ACT scores and Silver Level and higher WorkKeys scores if our students are to succeed and gin up our economy.

Replacing current subject matter tests with the ACT and WorkKeys tests, not adding them on, would give high schools time and resources to remediate low scoring children. Letting students, along with teachers and family members, know where they stand well before graduation is only fair and would help them with career planning.

Moving to market based testing in high schools makes too much sense for the Legislature to ignore Miles’ bill.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment