Hed: MEC president attacks growth of state government

Hed: MEC president attacks growth of state government

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

CLINTON – The growth of state government is holding Mississippi hostage, said Bob Pittman, president of the Mississippi Economic Council.

That message was delivered Thursday during the MEC’s annual membership meeting on the campus of Mississippi College. The Mississippi Economic Council’s membership includes more than 3,300 businesses statewide.

“We are being held hostage by a state government that grows and grows and spends and spends … yet never seems to be able to respond adequately to the critical problems that threaten us as a society,” Pittman said in his opening remarks.

The panel that responded to Pittman’s remarks consisted of state Rep. Charlie Capps, D-Cleveland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; Mark Garriga, Gov. Kirk Fordice’s chief of staff; John McCarty, president of McCarty Enterprises of Jackson; and, W.C. Shoemaker of Kosciusko, publisher or partner of several weekly and small daily newspapers in the state.

Spending too much

During the conference, Pittman criticized state government and particularly the Legislature:

– For spending $3 billion more now than five years ago.

– For tripling the budget in less than 20 years.

– For tripling the state’s debt from $400 million to $1.25 billion from 1987 to 1995. Pittman pointed out that 3.5 percent of the general fund revenue goes to pay off the debt.

Still, Pittman admitted this is below the 5 percent cap of general fund money recommended by bond rating agencies to pay off the debt and considerably below the 22 percent set aside for the federal debt.

The state builds up debt through the issuance of general obligation bonds. Proceeds from those bonds are used to pay for projects, such as construction at the state’s universities.

Pittman criticized the $150 million in bonds issued during the 1996 legislative session. This included $50 million for construction at universities and $12.5 million for new buildings at junior and community colleges.

Criticizing lobbyists

Garriga, speaking on behalf of the governor, said the executive branch had a clear conscience on the issuance of the bonds because the Fordice administration had opposed many of them. Fordice did not try to veto any bond bills this year.

Garriga also criticized lobbyists representing state employees, teachers and trial lawyers who “out hustle” the business lobbyists.

On the way to the conference, Garriga said he saw a state employee union van that had bumper stickers advocating “health care for all” and a “pay raise.”

He said that is an example of what the governor has to fight in trying to cut government. He added he gets frustrated when people complain that Fordice should work with legislators who are responsible for the growth in state government.

Capps, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a bill this year to halt government spending for at least three years. It passed the House, but died in the Senate.

But Capps said none of the proposals for government spending “were evil.”

He said much of the increased spending has been for 7,000 additional prison beds and new mental health hospitals.

Budgeting process

Capps also disagreed with some of the comments made about the Legislature’s budgeting process. Pittman criticized the Legislature for using the previous year’s budget as a starting point in providing funds for the upcoming year.

But Capps said the Legislature uses performance-based budgeting – making the agency heads justify their requests.

Pittman also said the Legislature did not plan ahead. He said the Legislature this year spent $7.7 billion for the upcoming budget year, which begins July 1. That leaves only $700,000 in case revenues do not come in as expected.

Capps explained the Legislature has a “rainy day” fund, which currently is at more than $200 million. Each year the Legislature puts 2 percent of total state revenue into the rainy day fund.

McCarty of McCarty Enterprises criticized the system for not having an outlet for the governor to be involved in the budgeting process. But Capps pointed out the governor submits a budget and has the ability to be heard during the committee process.

But he admitted the governor works very little with the Legislature.

Said Capps, chairman of one of the most powerful committees in the Legislature, “He doesn’t call me, and I don’t call him.”

Click video to hear audio