Lawmakers: Slow economy and tax cuts hurt Mississippi budget

Published 10:16 am Wednesday, March 15, 2017

By Emily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi faces a budget crisis because the economy is lagging and large tax cuts are depleting revenue, Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday.

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The two Democratic Caucus chairmen — David Baria of Bay St. Louis in the House and Bill Stone of Holly Springs in the Senate — said the problem is “the elephant in the room” as legislators approach the final weeks of budget writing.

“They seem to be ignoring this enormous problem,” Baria said of Republicans who control both chambers. “We’re still passing tax breaks on the House side.”

The Senate is advancing tax breaks as well. On Tuesday, senators voted to send House Bill 1601 to the governor. It would give tax exemptions to first-time homebuyers — $5,000 for a couple or $2,500 for an individual, with the exemption continuing for years.

March 25 is the deadline for House and Senate negotiators to agree on a more than $6 billion spending plan. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has had to make three rounds of budget cuts since July because tax collections have fallen short of expectations.

During a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol, several Democrats said lawmakers should block tax cuts that passed last year and are set to take effect when the new budget year begins July 1.

Democrats also said they have little influence over budget writing, and they didn’t say how they might try to block tax cuts from starting.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has been among the chief promoters of tax cuts, saying they should stimulate economic growth.

“Democrats in Mississippi are trying to impress their liberal counterparts in D.C. by fighting for higher taxes and bigger government, while my Republican colleagues and I work to lower taxpayers’ burden and reduce the overall size of government,” Reeves said in statement Tuesday. “Republicans believe individuals know best how to spend their money more than any government agency ever will.”

Several Democrats said the state needs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the safety of highways and bridges, as recommended by the state chamber of commerce, the Mississippi Economic Council.

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said budget shortfalls are affecting Mississippi residents who need health care, including mental health services.

“These are critical, critical problems,” Johnson said. “These are problems that are life-threatening to a lot of people.”