McDaniel Switcheroo Shifts Hot Seat from Wicker to Bryant

Call it what you will, state Senator Chris McDaniel blinked. Despite his earlier caustic rhetoric, he will not challenge incumbent U.S. Senator Roger Wicker in the Republican Primary. Instead, he will compete in what he hopes will be an easier pathway to the Senate, the special election to fill retiring Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat.

Assuming his billionaire funders stick with him, McDaniel may be right about the pathway, but he displayed some cavalier opportunism in ducking Wicker.

The November 6 special election works almost like an open primary. Republicans, Democrats and independents run together. If no-one gets a majority, a run-off occurs two weeks later.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Congressman Mike Espy will likely pull a large Democratic vote. McDaniel is counting on his base to put him ahead of any other Republican candidates to get in a runoff with Espy. He then hopes usually reliable GOP voters stick with him to beat Espy.

Espy must be hoping many moderate Mississippi voters will turn against the ultra-conservative McDaniel and choose a moderate Democrat, as they did in the recent Alabama special election.

All that, of course, hinges on McDaniel beating the Republican that Gov. Phil Bryant will soon name to fill Cochran’s seat until the special election.

Who can beat McDaniel is the overriding concern facing the Governor along with other state GOP leaders. Bryant might be toughest for McDaniel to beat. Many have encouraged him to go for it, including President Donald Trump. But Bryant told the Clarion-Ledger last week, “I’m never going to run for office again.”

Another strong candidate would be former Gov. Haley Barbour. While unlikely, a Barbour vs. McDaniel contest would resemble the extraordinary race four years ago between Cochran and McDaniel.

Another interesting race would be Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves vs. McDaniel. There is no love lost between these two. Reeves has kept McDaniel in a box in the Mississippi Senate.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann would have a chance. Others, such as House Speaker Philip Gunn and Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith, would have to build name ID and run hard to catch McDaniel.

And, if more than one strong Republican gets in, they would split votes needed to beat McDaniel.

Bryant has now made it clear he will appoint someone to Cochran’s seat other than McDaniel. “He is not on the list,” he told reporters.  And, he wants someone who can stay in the Senate multiple decades to build seniority. Of the names mentioned, only Reeves at 43 really meets that criteria. Gunn at 55 would be next. Maybe the Governor has a surprise candidate?

Commenting on McDaniel’s switcheroo, Bryant said, “This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential.”

This came after a rally by Tea Party leaders at the Capitol pushing on Bryant to appoint McDaniel. Bryant’s office issued a response saying, “The Governor believes Sen. McDaniel should focus his energy on the campaign to which he is committed.”

McDaniel, who regularly bashes the GOP establishment, then announced his pending switch and unabashedly called for all Mississippi Republicans to “unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest.”

Not likely.

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Legislature Has Flubbed Responsibility for Good Schools

With all the noise about school funding, school choice, vouchers, and teacher shortages, perhaps a look at some fundamentals would be helpful.

Remember 2015? The Initiative 42 referendum to put full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) in the state constitution? That initiative and the Legislature’s alternative both failed. So Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution remains unchanged.

It reads, “The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.”

That means it is our legislators’ duty to provide us free public schools, and puts the onus on them to make our free schools good schools.

The constitution gives them the power. They can draw and realign school districts, establish standards for administrators and teachers, set the school calendar, establish school policy and regulations, provide teacher pay, hold administrators accountable, and provide different types of schools, programs, and pay packages for challenged districts.

Instead, legislators have pushed much of the funding and responsibility to the local level. This lets legislators cut taxes, limit school funding, and pass blame for bad schools to local folks.

According to the constitution, however, this is not local folks’ job. Section 206 of the constitution says this about local effort, “Any county or separate school district may levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools.”

“May.” The constitution says local effort is to be discretionary.

It is not. Both the MAEP, and the apparently dead Mississippi Uniform Per Student Funding Formula considered by the Legislature this year, require local school districts to contribute up to 27% of the “base student cost.” Legislators also expect school districts to provide most, often all, of the costs for school buildings and related facilities.

Meanwhile, the availability of teachers is fast declining. The Mississippi Department of Education reported a 92% decrease, from 7,620 in 2007 to 603 in 2017, in the number of applicants for teacher licenses.

Given our low pay, deteriorating teaching environments, constant curricula changes, and never-ending school funding fights, no wonder fewer and fewer want to teach in Mississippi.

It’s pretty clear the Legislature has flubbed its responsibility to provide free and good public schools. We have too many low-performing schools and too many unable to attract and retain good teachers.

It’s no wonder parents in those school districts are frustrated. They feel locked into bad schools with no recourse for their children.

Rather than address the bad school problem, legislative leaders this year concocted a “school choice” plan to expand access to Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). Already available for students with special needs, the expanded version would have given vouchers to selected parents to send their children to private schools.

What a cop out to legislators’ constitutional responsibility to provide good schools for all children!

Parents living in school districts with low-performing schools or those struggling to attract and retain good teachers, look to the Legislature to fix your schools and pay teachers attractive salaries. Diverting dear school funds to vouchers for private schools is not the solution our constitution authorizes or envisions.

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McDaniel Determined to Take Down an Incumbent Senator

Well, here we go again. State Sen. Chris McDaniel has again anointed himself as the conservative messiah sent to save us from a successful incumbent U.S. Senator.

Most will remember the nasty and controversial campaign McDaniel waged four years ago to unseat Sen. Thad Cochran. As described by the Biloxi Sun-Herald, “that GOP primary race dominated the media and TV advertising for months in one of the nastiest campaigns in Mississippi history. The vitriol led to a blogger’s burglary of a nursing home, the suicide of a Tea Party stalwart, and whispering campaigns about extra-marital affairs.”

Now McDaniel wants to throw out Sen. Roger Wicker. There is no reason to expect the tone of this campaign will be any different.

However, the campaign itself will have a much different focus because of President Donald Trump. McDaniel says he aligns with and supports Trump, but Trump has issued a strong endorsement of Wicker. The night before McDaniel announced, Trump tweeted, “(Wicker) has been a great supporter and incredible help in getting our massive Tax Cut Bill done and approved. Also big help on cutting regs. I am with him in his re-election all the way!”

Nonetheless, you can tell from comments McDaniel makes that he views himself as a conservative hero — “I was Trump before Trump” he says — and a major player on par with Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul. As recent as last November, he was touting his connection to Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Now, he distances himself from the disgraced Bannon. “It’s very clear that I’m not a Bannon candidate,” he said.

But, it appears McDaniel will have ample funding from Bannon’s money group to wage his latest crusade. A super PAC called “Remember Mississippi” reported it had raised over $1 million to support McDaniel.

Funded primarily by right-wing mega donors Robert Mercer of New York ($500,000), Bannon’s financial godfather, and Richard Uihlein of Illinois ($500,000), the super PAC as of December 31, 2017, reported contributions of $200 or more from 13 individuals, none from Mississippi.

The total raised was $1,099,745 with $247,657 already spent for political consultants, financial consultants, and media services. Among the expenditures was $9,500 to former State Sen. Melanie Sojourner of Natchez for political consulting.

“Mississippi deserves a constitutional conservative who holds the same values as Mississippians and is a consistent and strong voice for them in Washington, D.C.,” said Tommy Barnett, treasurer of the PAC.

Can’t you just picture Mercer and Uihlein sitting around, counting their gold, and saying how concerned they are that Mississippians have a voice?

Prior to his announcement, McDaniel told Mississippi Today, “You know the great thing about Robert Mercer is I’ve dined with him on many occasions and he’s never asked me for anything. And it’s really a remarkable thing for a politician not to be asked for anything.”

Bless his heart. What’s remarkable is McDaniel apparently does not realize that there is nothing a billionaire like Mercer might want from a lowly state senator of little accomplishment. The ask, more likely the tell, would come only if McDaniel gets elected. That’s when mega donors like Mercer look for a return on their investment.

 

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Reeves’ BRIDGE Act Would Endow His Governorship

Love him or hate him for it, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stays true to his autocratic ways. He dropped his complex $1.1 billion “Building Roads, Improving Development, and Growing the Economy (BRIDGE) Act” on the Senate one day last week and passed it the next.

He also stuck in the bill provisions that would allow him expanded autocratic power as Mississippi’s next Governor. In addition to the imaginative funding it would provide, the bill would shift certain authorities from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) to the Governor.

The big money in the bill, estimated at $800 million, comes mostly from diverting money from the state rainy day fund into a new “Economic Development and Bridge Repair Fund” under the control of the Governor, not MDOT. The Governor would get to choose which bridges to be repaired from a list prepared by the State Aid Engineer, but would have total discretion to choose projects that “support economic development.”

Notably, most of the money going into the fund would not be available to spend until the next Governor takes office.

There is an extraordinary policy provision in the bill that would shift from MDOT to the Governor approval authority for all future right-of-way acquisitions for the state highway program.

Reeves’ bill also creates another new fund called the “Strategic Infrastructure Investment Fund.”  The Governor would control expenditures from this fund too. Initial state funding would be limited to revenues generated by a new tax on electric and hybrid vehicles. But the fund could potentially access millions from the $1.5 trillion infrastructure program proposed by President Donald Trump.

Altogether, this could provide extraordinary discretionary money and power for the next Governor.

Could.

Reeve’s five-year funding scheme is imaginary not only because of the many existing sources he taps to capture funds, but also because much of it may be illusory. The projected rainy day fund transfers depend on annual state revenues exceeding expenditures by 2% of the total budget. That hasn’t happened in recent years.

There is no certainty that President Trump’s turn-$200-billion-into-$1.5-trillion infrastructure scheme will come true either. Even if it does, it may not be suitable for Mississippi to do much. As proposed, states would have to match each federal dollar four-to-one.

Also, another $125 million projected to fund a new Municipal Sales Tax Diversion Infrastructure Fund will only occur in years when state sales tax collections exceed the prior year’s by 1%. That’s another iffy prospect. Growing online sales and retail store closures have been slowing sales tax growth. Sales tax collections for 2017 were flat compared to 2016.

It will be interesting to see how the House and its burgeoning autocratic leader, Speaker Philip Gunn, react. Will they want to put so much money and power into the hands of the next Governor (Reeves is the well-funded favorite)? Will they want to sign on to a $1.1 billion scheme that may actually generate far less money?

Still and all, it could happen. All the money could come true, Reeves could become governor, and infrastructure spending bliss could descend upon the parts of Mississippi he favors.

Hard to bet against autocrats these days.

 

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Trumponomics May Push National Debt Interest Costs Higher than Social Security and Medicare

Basic math and what the Wall Street Journal calls “Trumponomics” are headed for a brutal collision.

Here’s why.

The national debt is $20.6 trillion and rising. With rates low, annual debt interest costs averaged about $250 billion from 2011 through 2016. As the economy improved, interest rates slowly ticked up. But, now they are expected to surge as the stimulus jolt to an economy already at full employment from Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package plus over $300 billion in added government spending drive up inflation – and interest rates – over the next ten years.

Oh, those tax cuts and spending will also push annual deficits above $1 trillion for the foreseeable future, jacking up the debt even more as interest rates surge.

Basic math says higher interest rates times huge and growing debt equals much higher interest costs.

How high?

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, created to raise awareness of America’s long-term debt and how it affects economic growth, projects “interest costs will triple over the next 10 years, soaring from $269 billion in 2017 to $818 billion in 2027.”

Even worse, the Foundation says interest costs “are projected to be the third largest category in the federal budget by 2026 (after just Social Security and Medicare), the second largest category in 2046, and the single largest category before 2050.”

Larger than Social Security and Medicare? Wow!

Surely, “conservative” Republican leadership can do this basic math?

Maybe not.

“When Democrats are in power, Republicans appear to be the conservative party, and when Republicans are in power, there is no conservative party,” Sen. Rand Paul told TIME Magazine. While on the Senate floor he said, “I can’t in all good honesty, in all good faith, just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits.”

Former conservative Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz chimed in, telling Fox Business, “Republicans have lost every single bit of credibility on the idea that they care at all about debts and deficits.”

Sounds like reducing deficits and debt is not a real Republican issue, just one that plays well with the base.

Case in point: In 2013 Sen. Mitch McConnell said, “the most important issue confronting the future of our country is our deficit and debt.”  That’s the same Mitch McConnell who just ignored the deficits and debt to pass the tax cuts and budget bill.

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and self-proclaimed long-time Republican, expressed the growing consternation among many long-time Republicans in a USA Today op-ed.

“Republicans once believed in limited government, fiscal restraint, support for the defense and national security establishments, family values, and a strong American role in maintaining global order,” he wrote. “More than that, we were the party that believed in logic and prudence over emotion. Our hearts were perhaps too cold, but never bleeding. Today’s Republicans, however, are a party of bellowing drama queens whose elected representatives blow up spending caps, bust the deficit, and attack America’s law enforcement and national security agencies as dangerous conspirators.”

So, maybe the problem is much larger than not knowing basic math. It’s not having and adhering to real tenets of conservative Republicanism.

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Early Intervention with Disadvantaged Children Has High ROI

Gov. Phil Bryant kicked off a recent seminar at the Civil Rights Museum auditorium featuring Nobel Prize winning economist Dr. James Heckman. An expert in the economics of human development, Dr. Heckman spoke on “Making the Case for Investing in High Quality Early Childhood Education in Mississippi.” The Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi is hosting internationally known speakers to illustrate how investments in high quality early childhood education yield a high rate of return. Dr. Heckman’s research shows a 10% to 13% average return on investments (ROI) in high quality programs for disadvantaged children age zero to three.

The Governor, who met privately with Dr. Heckman after the event, spoke of his efforts to improve “the continuum of learning” for children. Citing the high volume of Mississippi children in daycare, he also noted that training programs at community colleges are working to upgrade the skills of daycare workers.

Dr. Heckman said the key to growing a skilled, flexible workforce in Mississippi is by building skills and not just technical skills. He said research shows developing “social and emotional skills” from birth to age three sets the stage for development of other skills. He added that “the family is the cornerstone of effective skill development.”

“Conscientiousness, self-control, motivation, persistence and sociability have far greater influence on full-time employment, lifetime wages, health, family and social outcomes than IQ and cognitive skills,” he said.

These are the soft skills employers yearn for in new hires.

Dr. Heckman said government should focus its limited dollars for early childhood interventions on children who will be most impacted. “The highest returns come from high quality programs for disadvantaged children,” he said. “Advantaged children have other resources often much better than those from public programs.”

“Invest more in flourishing lives, not in correcting problems after they appear,” he said. “Later remediation is largely ineffective.”

Dr. Heckman was the second in the three seminar series the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning is presenting. Drs. Craig and Sharon Ramey, experts in early childhood brain development, made the first presentation in December. Dr. Pat Levitt, Scientific Director of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, will make the final presentation this week. Dr. Levitt will discuss his research showing early life experiences influence social, emotional and learning skills, and how these skills come together to help children succeed in the real world and how healthy brain architecture provides the resilience to deal with adversity experienced during the first years of life.

Interestingly, just days after the Governor met with Dr. Heckman, the Mississippi Department of Human Services revealed it had returned $13 million to the federal government because of the lack of state matching funds. These funds were for child care vouchers for low income families. The Clarion-Ledger reported the Governor’s spokesman said, “Gov. Bryant fulfilled his statutory responsibility to balance the state’s budget” and he “is appreciative of efforts by Department of Human Services leadership to continue fulfilling the agency’s mission.”

Hmmm.

What Mississippi needs and what we’ll pay for don’t always geehaw.

 

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Cuts Put Mississippi Health Care Infrastructure at Risk

Our politicians these days seem to look only at the costs of health care when making policy decisions. Thus, it is no surprise legislative leaders are proposing to cut already low Medicaid reimbursements by 5% while Congressional leaders look to slash health care spending wherever they can.

People with health crises have a different view. During this flu epidemic, mothers with sick babies on Medicaid have trouble getting timely access to providers. Clinics are backed up, hospital emergency rooms are on patient diversion, and too many children are really sick.

More cuts to Medicaid will likely cause more private clinics to quit accepting Medicaid. Already too many clinics do not since Mississippi Medicaid reimbursements are among the lowest in the nation.

More cuts to Medicaid will put more rural hospitals at risk of closure, or at least their emergency rooms. They can’t stay open when costs continually exceed revenues.

More cuts to Medicaid will make it hard to recruit and retain physicians in Mississippi. It’s already hard. It will get harder.

Seriously ill rural residents needing specialty care travel farther and farther to receive services. That will just get worse as more communities and hospitals lose specialty physicians.

Meanwhile, as hospital emergency room usage soars, Medicaid and Medicare continue to reduce payments for uncompensated emergency room care.

And, while Congress finally reauthorized and sustained funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program through Medicaid, federal funding for community health centers remains uncertain. These health centers provide essential medical services for large and growing numbers of uninsured and Medicaid patients.

And, the President and Congress look to reduce subsidies for low-income families with Affordable Care Act exchange health insurance. These tend to be mostly working families without employer or dependent coverage. As families drop these policies due to increased premiums, the burden on community health centers and emergency rooms will only grow and grow.

Rural communities will suffer most. Residents there already have few choices.

As one with family members currently suffering from flu, heart conditions, dementia, and pancreatic cancer, I am thankful for the precious access we have to health care in America. Seems like this is something we would want to strengthen and provide to all, not tear down.

Yes, Obamacare went too far, but Republicans don’t need to go too far the other way.

For example, protecting the escalating, and often obscene, profits for giant pharmaceutical companies while not protecting the wellbeing of the working poor, e.g. leaving them without coverage and access, is not conservative, it’s diabolical.

The Associated Press reported that Mississippi’s population fell for the third year in a row, “as more people moved away from the Magnolia State than moved in.”

The AP also reported that John Green, director of the University of Mississippi Center for Population Studies, said, “If I had to argue one prevailing reason for net out-migration from Mississippi, I would focus on the search for socio-economic opportunities and wellbeing.”

A state whose mantra is cut Medicaid, cut public health, and cut mental health not only puts its health care infrastructure at risk but also will find it hard to keep and attract talent.

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