LLOYD GRAY: State spending cuts will get noticed in ’11

By LLOYD GRAY / NEMS Daily Journal

If Americans really want less government spending, as most of us now say we do, Mississippians are likely to get it in a big way next year – whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s election. That’s because the state budget picture looks dire.
Our appetite for this sort of change will be tested dramatically in Mississippi if Gov. Haley Barbour’s projection of a $400 million budget deficit is accurate. Agency cuts of up to 15 percent on top of spending reductions of the last two years are in prospect when that scenario – driven by the loss of federal stimulus funds – is combined with a refusal to raise any taxes or use a large portion of the one-time money that’s available. The governor has asked state agencies to begin planning for cuts of that magnitude.
If it’s true that most Mississippians haven’t noticed the impact of budget cuts over the last two cycles, as Barbour has suggested, they probably will when the next round comes.
One way they’re likely to notice it is in higher local tax bills. Few school boards will sit back and watch the kind of paring of the schools that would be necessary – including elimination of teaching jobs, classes and extracurricular programs – without acting. They have the authority to raise local taxes. Many will.
University and community college tuition will again go up while enrollment increases and the level of educational services goes down. That’s a targeted tax increase in everything but name.
Mental health facilities will close. Fewer state troopers will be out on the roads. Medicaid and other health care services could be affected.
This is not scare rhetoric, but reality.
The people may be as adamant against state tax increases, and even local actions to make up state budget cuts, as the politicians assume, and these kinds of reductions in government services may be willingly accepted. Don’t bet on it being a sure thing, though.
It’s always easy in the abstract to be for cutting spending. It becomes more difficult when that spending moves from the abstract to the concrete and affects things like the size of your child’s classroom, the courses available to that child, and how much it costs to send older brother and sister to college.
Or whether Grandma can stay in the nursing home or another relative can get emergency treatment for a mental illness.
These are chief among the reasons that cutting government spending is so hard: There are built-in needs and constituencies for most all kinds, and the stuff that most people really don’t mind getting rid of doesn’t amount to much in the broad scheme of things.
In Mississippi the constitution requires a balanced budget, so somehow we get it done. But never – at least not since the Great Depression – will the impact on services be as pronounced as it could be next year, given the increasing budget strains on the horizon.
The solution in Mississippi in the Depression – shocking as it may be to fathom in these times – was creation of an entirely new tax, the state sales tax. That brought the state from the brink of bankruptcy.
There are promises all over now of no new taxes – not even a higher casino levy or other “sin” taxes – and state election years, which 2011 will be, have never been a time to even utter the “T” word. Or have they?
Well, December 1982 was one month before an election year and legislators increased sales and income taxes to pay for the Education Reform Act, which to that point was the most comprehensive education legislation in the entire country. And that, too, was at a time when the state and nation were struggling to emerge from a tough recession. Most of the people who were involved in that effort were rewarded, not punished, at the polls the next year.
But that was the exception, and the political climate is much different now. Or is it?
Just the other day, 68 percent of the voters in Oxford voted a significant new tax on themselves. They voted to raise their property taxes to pay for a $30 million bond issue to build a new high school and make improvements to other schools.
They saw something real, tangible and valuable to them that they were willing to pay for – even in an era when people aren’t supposed to want to raise taxes for anything.
If Mississippians notice in 2011 that the things they need or value are being noticeably curtailed, those who say no taxes, no way, no how could be surprised. There just might be more Oxfords out there than people think.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.