Of Shortfalls, Cuts, Contrasting Oversight, and Reverse Repealers

Our Legislature faces deteriorating finances as they move to fund state government for next fiscal year.

Calling revenue collections for this fiscal year “disappointing,” the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison reported “revenue is $116 million or 4 percent below projections” for the year after falling another $18.5 million in January. In an earlier article he noted Governor Phil Bryant may have to cut existing state budgets again. Already the Governor “has been forced to cut budgets four times within a 12-month period and dip into the rainy day fund twice,” wrote Harrison.

Shortfalls and cuts this fiscal year bode ill for next year. Legislators will start with less and can expect less from next year’s collections.

Legislators’ efforts to up revenue are meeting opposition. A bill to tax fantasy sports gambling, eh, gaming, failed. A bill to push out-of-state companies to collect sales taxes (called use taxes), similar to one adopted in Alabama, is under attack by the Mississippi Tea Party. They also attacked Commissioner of Revenue Herb Frierson for getting Amazon to voluntarily collect taxes on its sales. Proposals to raise revenue to fix deteriorating roads and bridges continue to be attacked by the Mississippi branch of Americans for Prosperity.

Another hit to next year’s finances come as cuts to business taxes and personal income taxes, passed last year, begin phasing in.

In the face of these financial troubles, it only makes sense for state agencies to right size staffing. The House narrowly passed and sent to the Senate a bill allowing agency heads to ignore civil service rules to streamline operations.

House Appropriations Chairman John Read told colleagues that agency directors need this flexibility. The Clarion-Ledger reported legislative leaders hope to save $13 million from staff cuts. These cuts would add to the 1,999 unfilled positions legislators plan to eliminate. (Note to PERS – this will hurt.)

In other action, the House sent the Senate a bill to give the Governor authority to approve or disapprove operating regulations of state boards “controlled by active market participants.” These are mostly boards made up of licensed practitioners who approve licenses for new practitioners. A U.S. Supreme Court decision made such boards subject to anti-trust rules unless actively overseen by government, an issue the bill resolves. In addition to accountability oversight, the Governor should be able to improve efficiency and customer service among those boards not so good at such behavior. That would be a good thing.

In contrast, the House sent the Senate a bill authorizing the University of Mississippi Medical Center to establish public corporations with limited government oversight. The bill, modeled after one in Alabama, will allow UMMC to establish cooperative arrangements or affiliations with other health care facilities and providers to improve quality of care and lower health care costs. The bill also mitigates anti-trust rules for such arrangements. With appropriate financial oversight, it will be a good way to give UMMC equal footing with out-of-state hospitals encroaching on our state.

These last two items must go to conference, if passed by the Senate, to become actionable since the House meekly put reverse repealers in them.

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Inflated University Enrollment Costs Taxpayers

With tight state budgets looming for the foreseeable future, government operations must be rationalized to higher levels of efficiency and performance. Mississippi’s public universities should not be exempt from this process.

In last week’s column I suggested legislators look hard at university admission standards and out-of-state tuition. IHL’s current approach is to admit under-prepared students and to discount out-of-state tuition. This approach inflates enrollment, drives demand for tax dollars, and results in nonstop tuition increases and requests for new bonding authority.

Consider this. Since 2011 enrollment at our public universities grew from 80,516 to 82,654, but in-state enrollment fell from 61,917 to 57,717, a 7% decrease. The enrollment increase came totally from out-of-state students, growing from 18,599 to 24,939, a 34% increase. No doubt much of this growth results from the 2012 law legislators passed allowing IHL to discount out-of-state tuition.

If the goal is for universities to grow enrollment, things are hunky-dory. But if the goal is for universities to educate and graduate Mississippi residents, things are not so swell.

A compliant Legislature is part of the problem.

The 2012 law allowing discounted out-of-state tuition should be rescinded. Admission practices at the University of Mississippi (UM) and Mississippi State University (MSU) should be at least as high as major universities in neighboring states. And admission practices at the other six universities should incorporate a minimum 21 ACT score. Students with ACT scores as low as 16 can be admitted now.

ACT predicts at least 75% of university students achieving a 21 composite ACT score (18 in English, 21 in social science, 22 in math, and 24 in science) should earn a C average or better. That’s a pretty low standard.

However, the average ACT scores at four universities are below 21 – MVSU 17, ASU 18, JSU 19, and DSU 20. Scores at MUW and USM are 21 and 22, respectively.

The average ACT scores at UM and MSU are both 24. But averages at major universities in neighboring states are higher – Alabama 26, Arkansas 26, LSU 26, and Tennessee 27.

Admission standards at most universities are based on a combination of ACT (or SAT) scores and high school grades on the college preparatory curriculum. Major universities in neighboring states tend to admit students with at least a 23 on the ACT plus above average high school grades.

Eliminating out-of-state tuition discounts and incorporating into admission practices at least a 21 ACT score at six Mississippi universities and at least a 23 ACT score at UM and MSU would just about wipe-out the need for remediation, significantly improve graduation rates, cause dramatic reductions in university enrollment and staffing, and reduce demands for taxpayer support.

Along with these changes, alternative education pathways would need to be provided for the thousands of under-prepared students graduating our high schools. Community colleges are one existing pathway. Others would mitigate disproportionate impact to our historically black universities.

Political fallout would be intense, but taxpayers are demanding more efficient and productive government.

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Legislators Should Take Hard Look at University Admissions

USM cut out-of-state tuition by 40% “to reverse a 2,000-student enrollment dip by pricing a USM education below some public universities in nearby states,” reported the Clarion-Ledger.

IHL data shows the average percentage of out-of-state students attending Mississippi public universities is 30%. The averages for each university are ASU 24%, DSU 17%, JSU 23%, MSU 34%, MUW 15%, MVSU 23%, UM 41%, USM 21%.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn led a panel of lawmakers discussing the high costs of education in Mississippi to focus in on “the $35 million colleges and universities spend annually on remediation for students that need extra help once they get to college,” reported Mississippi Today.

Enrolling under-prepared students impacts graduation rates. IHL data shows the average six-year graduation rate for Mississippi public universities is 50%. The rates for each university are ASU 34%, DSU 36%, JSU 39%, MSU 61%, MUW 39%, MVSU 26%, UM 59%, USM 45%.

“Mississippi’s postsecondary education system as a whole awards fewer bachelor’s degrees than the national average,” reported BestColleges.com.”

Hmmm.

The above information suggests our high schools are doing a poor job preparing students for university level work, we let far too many under-prepared students into our universities, and we’re having to hustle out-of-state students to keep our universities filled up.

Nevertheless, MSU President Mark Keenum, DSU President William LaForge, and IHL Commissioner Glenn Boyce “warned legislators that continued declines in state funding could cause serious damage to public universities,” reported Mississippi Today.

University officials appear to want more money to keep doing what they’ve been doing without promising better results. Albert Einstein called doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results “insanity.”

More than one successful business leader in Mississippi have suggested that raising university admission standards could eliminate the need for remediation, dramatically improve graduation rates, and significantly reduce costs.

Gunn’s group also discussed the admission standards, reported Mississippi Today. The report said IHL Commissioner Glenn Boyce called them “one of the lowest” set of standards in the nation and that he and university presidents have begun discussing the pros and cons of the current standards for both in and out of state students. He called access to higher education a pro. “We don’t want to cut that access off,” he said.

Hmmm.

So, which is more important access or success?

Access to near certain failure at universities might be worth cutting off, particularly when access to community colleges is a viable, more affordable alternative.

There is no doubt Mississippi needs many more university graduates. But that doesn’t mean we need to underprice tuition to attract out-of-state students or allow thousands of under-prepared students to enroll.

State money is tight. Pouring more money into a flawed system seems ill-advised, if not insane. Legislators should take a hard look at university admission standards and out-of-state tuition. While raising admission standards and out-of-state tuition prices would be controversial and opposed by most universities, scarce budget dollars dictate hard looks across the board.

 

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Two Meridian Representatives Introduce Conflicting Bills

Meridian Republican Representative Steve Horne has introduced House Bill 305 to abolish party primaries for state and local elections.

Meridian Republican Representative Greg Snowden has introduced House Bill 496 to require party primaries for state and local judicial elections.

Hmmm.

Horne’s bill was referred by Speaker of the House Philip Gunn to the Apportionment and Elections Committee. Snowden’s bill was referred by Gunn to the Judiciary A Committee.

Hmmm.

Horne’s bill would put Mississippi elections in a similar posture to Louisiana’s. Instead of party primaries, there would be a preference primary held three weeks before each general election. Candidates could still qualify with their party of choice or as independents, but all candidates would compete in the preference primary. Any candidate getting a majority would be placed on the general election ballot without opposition. When no candidate gets a majority, the top two would run-off in the general election.

Snowden’s bill would remove judicial elections from their current non-partisan status. Parties would hold regular primaries to choose their nominees. Primary winners and (maybe) independents would run in winner-take-all general elections like all other officeholders currently do. (“Maybe” independents because Snowden’s bill as written says “Candidates for judicial office shall be selected through nominations made by the different parties of this state at primary elections.”)

Given the hyper-partisanship dominating Mississippi politics, Horne’s bill probably doesn’t have much chance. So the Speaker likely sent it to the Apportionment and Elections Committee to die, like his similar bill last year. For the same reason, though, he sent Snowden’s bill to the Judiciary A Committee where it might pass. It didn’t. The committee tabled the bill on a voice vote.

While Snowden’s bill might make sense from a hyper-partisan perspective, it’s not as sensible from a fiscally conservative point of view.

You see, elections cost money, lots of money. Right now there’s the first primary, the run-off primary, and the general election. Under Horne’s bill there would be only the preference election and the general election. Over time, eliminating extra elections would save wads of taxpayer dollars. This would be especially good for many small towns and counties.

Fewer elections covering shorter periods of time would also save candidates and their supporters wads of campaign money.

Indeed, a true fiscal conservative would argue that parties, not taxpayers, should pay for their primary elections anyway.

Snowden didn’t address election costs, but told the Clarion-Ledger his bill would raise the profile of judicial elections and level the field. He argued that because they now run only in the general election in November, judicial candidates face a potential runoff around Thanksgiving. “No one wants to come out and vote during the Thanksgiving week,” he said.

Hmmm.

A useful compromise might be to apply Horne’s approach to judicial and municipal elections but leave all else the same. It would accomplish Snowden’s goal to make judicial elections partisan but also Horne’s goal to save money on elections.

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Road and Bridge Crisis Causes Great Ponderation

Riding the rural highways of Mississippi, it’s easy to see why so many citizens want taxes cut. Vistas of disrepair and deterioration overwhelm. Strapped folk in these areas see little benefit from state spending. To them, every precious dollar they send to state and local governments must seem to disappear down endless holes. They are beyond taxed enough already.

Now, these highways they depend on for work, church, and groceries have begun to buckle and crack. Bad roads will worsen their plight unless and until money is spent to fix them. But there is not enough money for repairs, especially for poor, rural areas. And there won’t be without more tax revenues.

This infrastructure calamity has become a matter of great ponderation in Jackson.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told a Stennis Institute gathering last week the matter is one legislators can’t ignore, adding road and bridge repair is a “core function” of government. True, so long as pondering is different from ignoring.

You see, legislators have known about, and pondered, this problem for years. Back in 2009 their own PEER Committee told them the backlog for just bridge repairs had grown to $975 million. Then, in 2013, PEER told them the bridge backlog had jumped to $2.7 billion. In 2015 the Mississippi Economic Council told them nearly $6 billion was needed to fix both bridges and highways.

Naturally, each bigger number created a need for greater ponderation.

Today, money needed to fix roads and bridges is nearing $7 billion.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders have a self-made dilemma. Back in 2015, business leaders warned them bad roads would hurt the state economy and asked them to raise taxes. Legislative leaders promised to take care of the issue. Instead, they’ve pondered.

This past summer, legislative leaders listened to their chosen tax consultant tell them user taxes should be the primary means of funding government functions. They liked what they heard.

Well, the gas tax is the user tax Mississippi levies to pay for roads and bridges. It was last increased in 1987. For years now, it has provided too little money to cover both new construction and repairs. The easy and, according to the tax consultant, proper fix would be to increase the gas tax.

Anti-tax rural folks have a different thought. They want tax cuts, not tax increases, not even just a few cents per gallon of gas. They don’t get, or don’t care, that good roads are essential for a good economy.

Meanwhile, roads and bridges deteriorate more each year, putting everyone’s economic well-being at risk.

Impatient business leaders want legislative leaders to keep their promise. Republican legislators in control understand, but want to keep their jobs.

As drivers jerk and shudder down ever more rugged highways, they can rest assured of one thing. Mississippi’s legislative leaders, like Pinky and the Brain, will ponder this matter with great deliberation.

PS – Reeves said possible help from Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan would now be included in their ponderation.

 

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Trump Tweets Unnerve Trent Lott

“He is very capable of doing a switcheroo really quick, which can be a good thing or it can not be.” This was former Senate Majority Leader and Mississippi Senator Trent Lott talking about president-elect Donald Trump.

Switcheroos, as Lott calls them, are becoming a hallmark of Trump’s transition to the presidency. He says one thing one day, then changes it the next. His team says one thing, then he says another.

In its story quoting Lott, Politico.com found itself unable to decide if the “mixed messages and shifting realities of Trump world” are a “byproduct of Trump’s unconventional approach to communications or a more systemic dysfunction.”

The online news source said, “Trump allies and Republicans eager to work with him and capitalize on the remarkable governing opportunity he has delivered them have themselves been stymied from time to time by the president-elect’s mixed messages and consistent inconsistencies. They, too, aren’t sure about which Trump tweets or conversations to take literally — or even seriously.”

Lott is one of those.

“A lot of our allies are very nervous about whether they can count on us,” he said.

Lott told Politico that Trump’s incessant tweets unnerve him.

“The tweets unnerve me. I see how you can use that to go around and over the traditional media and how many people get his tweets. But it unnerves me because I’m kind of old school.”

One thing Trump is not is old school. He is unconventional, intends to remain unconventional, and will do unconventional things as President to deliberately “unnerve” his opposition of the moment and keep them off balance.

“President-elect Donald Trump won’t end the onslaught of posts on Twitter that fed his unconventional campaign, even after taking on the formalized duties of the Oval Office later this month,” says a story on Bloomberg.com.

“You know what?” said incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “The fact of the matter is that when he tweets, he gets results.”

Spicer said Trump’s use of Twitter plus Facebook and Instagram will “absolutely” continue.

Of course, this is another switcheroo. On CBS’s “60 Minutes” in November he said he was rethinking his use of social media. “I’m going to be very restrained, if I use it at all, I’m going to be very restrained,” he said.

Unconventional and unrestrained, such a President will unnerve millions more than Trent Lott.

His tweet in December that, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” prompted fear across the globe of a new nuclear arms race.

His tweets to General Motors and Toyota threatening punitive taxes if they locate manufacturing in Mexico have unsettled global corporate leaders.

But perhaps the most unnerving aspect of all was Spicer’s admission that no-one knows what Trump is going to tweet until after it hits. “He drives the train on this,” Spicer told the Wall Street Journal.

Sorry Trent. Old school is out. Switcheroo is in. The Donald is going to keep us all on the edge of our seats.

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Beware of Leaders with Unchecked Shadows

History tells us when those who yield to their shadow selves choose leaders of their ilk, calamity, often war, follows.

Carl Jung labeled the dark side of self as “the shadow.” His psychiatric research into personality found people to have inner shadows associated with feelings of guilt, fear, hate, anger, selfishness, etc.

Upon looking deeply into himself, C.S. Lewis said “And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”

Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, teaches we must know and confront our inner shadows to become whole or “authentic”.

“In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and the mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadows,” says Palmer. “With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions.”

He was echoing Plato who said, “In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature.”  Plato cautioned that tyrants begin as “protectors,” then “the lion and serpent element in them disproportionately grows and gains strength.”

How many times have we seen leaders pretend to virtuousness only to see their dark sides rear up to bring them down?

Then, there are those who manipulate our dark sides to gain power. They play to our fears, anger, and selfishness. As they rise to power, they breed more followers of like mind. “A leader,” Palmer explained, “is someone with the power to project either shadow or light” and who “shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell.”

In today’s world, more and more leaders are rising up who play to the shadow selves of their people – Putin in Russia, Netanyahu in Israel, Erdogan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt, Duterte in the Philippines, Trump in the U.S., and more on the rise in Europe.

We can see it at the state and local levels, too, where the politics of division and self-interest overwhelm the good of the whole.

When we allow our shadow selves to guide us, we open the doors of government to the “looters” and “moochers” that Ayn Rand wrote about. We set up the pathways to tyranny that Plato warned us about.

“Alexis de Tocqueville, put it eloquently,” said Ronald Reagan, quoting the historian in his famous “evil empire” speech — “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and the genius of America. America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Our challenge, then, is to dwell more in the light than in the shadow and become like the teachers whose inner light stimulates young people to grow and flourish and the pastors whose guiding light does the same for their congregations.

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