Mississippi should invest in what is already working

Published 10:35 am Tuesday, February 28, 2017

By Charlie Mitchell

A tour bus pulled off the side of the narrow highway just west of Marks where Highway 6 becomes as flat and straight as the furrows that flank it.

It was early October. One at a time, the passengers stepped off and into a field of soon-to-be-picked cotton. Some posed for photos. Others took selfies. They were from Amsterdam, which most of us consider pretty exotic. But they believed they were seeing one of the world’s most interesting sights

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There’s more where they came from. Mississippi should spare no effort in inviting them.

Peer through the mists of memory, 10 years or so. Recall that today’s Tea Party, now a confederation of righties, began as the TEA Party, a cross-section of the population whose sole point was that government simply had to stop costing more and more.

The message from the Taxed Enough Already cohort was straight out of an economics textbook. They believed capitalism itself was in danger because too much money was being scraped off by various bureaus of revenue.

Not surprisingly, the TEA line of thinking found fertile soil in Mississippi. This state was first in the nation to place a sales tax on private retail purchases. Several states have no personal income tax. Mississippi does, and has for a long time. Mississippi has just about every type of tax invented — use taxes, severance taxes, corporate taxes, fuel taxes, alcohol taxes, tobacco taxes, property and vehicle taxes. If it moves, Mississippi taxes it. If it sits still, Mississippi taxes it, too.

Gov. Phil Bryant and his predecessor, Haley Barbour, were “no new taxes” kind of guys. The largest recent tax changes were an increase in the general sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent and the creation of an average 12 percent tax on each dollar a gambler leaves at a Mississippi casino. And both were enacted about 26 years ago, well before Bryant and Barbour.

While there have been tweaks and adjustments, the steam ran out on the engine of taxation in this state even before the TEA Party movement.

And while there is current talk of starting a lottery and actually collecting existing taxes on internet sales, the impetus during the administrations of Bryant and Barbour has been to cut the size of government.

In 2015, the Legislature passed tax cuts for business. In 2016, the Legislature cut taxes for business again, with a tiny smidge for individuals.

On another front — job creation — the Legislature has doled out hundreds of millions in 20-year tax waivers and other incentives for various manufacturing enterprises and even retail sales developments.

Tax law may be complicated, but the underlying principle is clear. A healthy and active private economy generates public revenue. An anemic economic does not. Mississippi’s economic is anemic.

Layer on top of that the reality that super projects will generate only payroll taxes if and when they come to fruition.

It seems the recipe for goosing the economy needs another ingredient.

And it’s right before our eyes, as evidenced by that bus by Highway 6 near Marks.

Mississippi is a natural for specialized tourism. We know about the place; others are very curious. We see cotton fields and wild rivers and antebellum homes and flights of waterfowl pretty regularly. Others don’t.

People will travel here to learn Civil Rights history just as much as Civil War history. They’ll follow a trail of the heroes who changed America just as they follow the trail of those who gave birth to America’s music. The natural world — ecotourism — is largely untapped. Music. The arts. Literature.

These assets are here. Positive steps are being taken toward more trails, more museums, more festivals. From the top of the state to the bottom and from west to east there are new attractions. But think about the financial gain from a superbly coordinated, well-funded statewide campaign to promote tourism.

The effect would be immediate and profound. Instead, budgets for promoting the tourism are being cut, and the Mississippi Arts Commission barely escaped becoming absorbed into another agency, where it would likely be forgotten.

One more thing: Food. More and more people travel to destinations just to eat like the locals. “Foodies” are worth courting, along with all those other specialized travelers.

Mississippi would do well to spend a little less time trying to compete with the big manufacturing centers and a lot more time investing in the array of assets that are already here, but are unheralded, taken for granted or overlooked.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.