A lab tech prepares a body for autopsy in the Mississippi Medical Examiner's office in Pearl. Credit: Ashley F.G. Norwood, Mississippi Today

Last year, the state crime lab completed an autopsy from 2011.

Today, the backlog of 1,600 autopsies for the crime lab to perform includes those where the deaths occurred in 2015.

Commissioner of Public Safety Sean Tindell recently stressed that the policy is to perform as soon as possible the autopsies needed for criminal investigations and trials.

“I will emphasize most of that backlog on autopsy reports are non-homicides..,” Tindell recently told the Legislative Budget Committee members who are working to develop a budget recommendation for the next fiscal year starting in July. “There just has not been a lot of pressure on getting them done. That is no excuse.”

He added, “I think where there is a murder or homicide we want to expedite those as soon as possible.”

 Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who is chair of the Budget Committee, said six years is too long to wait for any autopsy.

“The non-murders are, for example, one who contacted us was a mother and two children whose husband died unexpectedly,” Hosemann said. “They couldn’t get their life insurance benefits and that is the only money they had. With all due respect, I think those are important.”

Tindell wholeheartedly agreed and said that is why he is working to ensure all autopsies are completed in 90 days. And truth be known, Tindell, who was appointed public safety commissioner when Reeves’ term as governor began in January 2020, cannot be held responsible for a backlog, caused at least in part, by years of underfunding of the state crime lab.

The underfunding does not end with the crime lab. Point a random finger at almost any entity in state government and an example of underfunding can be found. For years, Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, has been beset with a multitude of problems and a limited amount of state revenue to address those woes. Whether it be teacher salaries or salaries for employees at multiple other governmental agencies, or aging technology or dilapidated school buildings or poor health care, the list of problems facing the state goes on and on.

Yet in about a five-year period during the last decade, about 50 tax cuts were enacted that when finally, fully phased in will take more than $700 million annually in revenue out of the state’s coffers.

Now Reeves and legislators are eyeing more tax cuts. Thanks in large part to the massive influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds that arguably helped Mississippi more than any state in the nation, state coffers are relatively flush. Many leaders are bragging about the state’s fiscal condition, taking credit for it and saying now is the time for a tax cut.

Yet, during one day of recent budget hearings, one agency head after another bemoaned the problems they face because of primarily a lack of funding. Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain reported that if he does not find a way to hire more prison guards, who have perennially been underpaid, then the federal Department of Justice is going to step in and sue because of the state’s inadequate prison conditions.

Brad White, executive director of the Department of Transportation, lamented his agency’s inability to hire employees.

“We are no longer in a position to adequately compete with the private sector,” White said.

Revenue Commissioner Chris Graham said, “Our applications (for employment) have dried up.”

State employees and teachers are paid less than their counterparts in surrounding states.

Wendy Bailey, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, said the work force for her agency has decreased by almost 4,000 since 2009.

Various studies have even cited the state’s declining workforce as one of the reasons for the struggles to fund the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System. Put simply, the reports say there are not enough workers paying into the retirement system to support it.

Back in the last decade as legislators were cutting taxes, many leaders said their goal was to starve government.

“We Republicans have campaigned for many, many years that we are for living within our means. We are for controlling spending. We are for reducing the size of government,” House Speaker Philip Gunn said in 2017 as reported by the Associated Press. “We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem. We are for reducing the tax burden.”

The governor echoed those thoughts.

“That’s what voters elected us to do. They elected us to live within our means,” Reeves said. “They believe they ought to send less money to the government. They believe that they are already overtaxed and overburdened.”

Perhaps Reeves could add that many Mississippians, whether it’s the family waiting for that autopsy report needed to collect life insurance or the child lacking a certified teacher, are also underserved.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.