Mississippi’s budget divide: partisan politics shapes discussions

Published 7:21 am Thursday, October 13, 2016

By The Associated Press

Mississippi lawmakers are on separate tracks as they discuss state taxes and spending, with divisions defined largely by political party.

During different meetings Wednesday at the Capitol, a group consisting mostly of Republicans looked for ways to trim the budget, while Democrats heard from a researcher who recommended Medicaid expansion and more education spending to close the gap between rich and poor. Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly rejected Medicaid expansion, and they hired a private consulting firm this week to rewrite Mississippi’s education funding formula to try to cut administrative costs.

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Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, are chairmen of the group examining state agencies’ spending. The group heard Wednesday from speakers with the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian group that advocates cutting public spending by letting private companies handle services that are not core government functions, such as running parking garages on university campuses.

The budget group also discussed how much is being spent on contracts and asked agency directors whether they would eliminate specific programs.

Dr. Mary Currier, the state health officer, said one relatively small line-item that could be cut from the Department of Health Budget is a program to put anti-tobacco posters into frames for schools. Legislators asked her several questions about tobacco prevention and cessation programs, which are funded by winnings from a state lawsuit against tobacco companies in the 1990s. The state still receives annual payments.

Currier said anti-tobacco programs are required by state law and have been effective in cutting public health costs by reducing smoking.

“It’s hard to get adults to quit. It’s much easier to get kids not to start,” Currier said.

Department of Mental Health Director Diana Mikula told the bipartisan group that the department has 1,453 fewer employees now than it did in 2008, partly because of state budget cuts. The department has increased its use of part-time contract employees who work an average of about 20 hours a week, she said.

The House and Senate Democratic caucuses on Wednesday heard from Jeanie Donovan of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans. She is a co-author of “State of Working Mississippi 2016,” a report released last month. It uses inflation-adjusted figures that show the wealthiest 10 percent of Mississippi earners saw their wages increase from 2007 to 2015, while most other groups saw wages decrease. It also shows that black residents, on average, earn less than whites — a trend that has persisted for decades.

Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis, leader of the House Democrats, criticized Republicans’ attempts to decrease corporate tax rates. He said that could put more tax burden on people with low or moderate incomes.

“The disparity between the wealthy and the poor in Mississippi has grown … and if you were to go the route that it seems our Republican majority wants to go, then that disparity is just going to grow wider in the near future,” Baria said. “And we think that’s a problem.”