PHILADELPHIA — The first day of political speeches at the annual Neshoba County Fair drew dozens of state officials and legislators, a crowd in the hundreds and, for some Republicans, a large elephant in the room in the shape of the state’s troubled economy.
In the last two years, state revenue that failed to meet projections has forced five mid-year budget cuts, leading to layoffs at several state agencies. In addition, many Republican and Democratic leaders failed last session to find extra funding for deteriorating infrastructure amid a broadening effort to tighten state spending across the board.
Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, briefly acknowledged that lower revenue than projected has created a challenge for legislators but said there was an upside to “these hard economic times.”
“These tough times have made us look for inefficiencies in government and made us look for innovative ways to serve Mississippi,” Branning said.
As an example Branning mentioned House Bill 1090, also known as The Hope Act, which increases vetting for Medicaid recipients. Advocates have estimated the bill will save the state up to $40 million, though opponents have expressed concern that qualified recipients could lose benefits.
“That’s positive change, and that’s good government,” Branning said.
State Auditor Stacey Pickering spoke after Branning and continued her theme, emphasizing millions of dollars in fraud and mismanagement that his office has recovered for the state and federal government.
“The biggest story out of auditor’s office deals with GreenTech, another risky investment made by the state of Mississippi. They were going to build high-efficient cars in Tunica. They have to pay back $6 million of our money that they’ve spent and not kept up their end of the deal,” Pickering said.
“This is another risky scheme (and) we cannot jeopardize taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Rep. Michael Ted Evans, D-Preston, dove right into the state’s financial issues in his remarks, arguing that the state is in desperate need of money. And, he said, tax cuts aren’t the way to get it.
“So if our economy’s grown, where is the money? Why are we still broke? Why is revenue down $300-$400 million every year?” Evans asked. ”
“Now folks I’m gonna tell you, I voted for some of those tax cuts. I ain’t gonna be a hypocrite. But it’s time for us to take the money back,” he said. “If we’re going to get back on the right track, we have to repeal corporate tax cuts.”
This month, the largest tax cut in state history went into effect, ultimately reducing taxes by $415 million over the next 12 years. Included in the package of breaks is the elimination of the corporate franchise tax, a measure that Republicans have said will spur growth, while some Democrats have argued it rewards corporations.
“(The legislature) didn’t back the 75 guys who lost their jobs in the Forestry Commission. We didn’t back Rural Fire Truck program … We didn’t back the highway program, you’re still riding on rough roads. Local hospitals are still begging for help. We laid off hundreds from mental health,” Evans said.
“We backed Walmart, Budweiser, Chevron, we backed the buggy. Walmart rolls through with buggies, we gonna fill them up with tax credits,” he added.
Despite the controversy, Branning said she had no reason to doubt that the tax cuts would bring growth to Mississippi’s economy.
“Until I see a concrete reason, I’ll stand behind my vote,” Branning said.
Branning did acknowledge that “infrastructure continues to be a problem,” an idea that Dick Hall, the chair of Mississippi’s Transportation Commission, drove home in his speech.
According to Hall, Mississippi’s Department of Transportation maintains more than 26,000 miles of paved highway, of which 4,630 needs serious rehabilitation or reconstruction. Of the 5,600 bridges in the state, half have been classified as deficient, he said.
“When the 90-year-old bridge that was designed and constructed to last for 50 years crashes with a school bus loaded with screaming children, I’m going to say ‘I told you so.’ And don’t think that may not happen. When school starts next month there will be buses making their way over bridges in this state which are in danger of failing,” Hall said.
Hall, a Republican, said fixing these roads will cost the state $4 billion. As a result, he said the only logical way to pay for it is by raising the fuel tax, which was last increased in 1987.
“Since then, materials for construction and maintenance in this state, price of that has increased a composite of 462%. Tell me a business you know of that could survive with that increase in raw materials at a revenue level set 30 years ago,” Hall said.
“(The fuel tax) remains the fairest way to fund roads and bridges. User pays. Those using the highways pay for the highways. That includes those using from other states and passing through to somewhere else.”
Not all the speeches were overtly political. A roster of judges spoke, including Bill Waller, chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, touting recent reforms such as the pilot program for mental health courts. One of these six programs is in the 8th Circuit Drug Court, which includes Neshoba County.
Waller said if the mental health court follows the trajectory of the drug court, the benefits for the state won’t just be personal.
“(With the drug court) Eighty-thousand dollars has been paid back to Neshoba County because these people are out working and they’re able to pay their fines,” he said. “But the real benefit is 119 people who did not have jobs who now have jobs — that’s almost 1,000 statewide. That’s (as many jobs as) a new tire plant, and we didn’t have to invest anything in it.”