OPINION: Mississippi holds many options in saving money

JACKSON – Mississippi, like many other states, is dealing with historically difficult budget woes.
Budget issues facing many states might be the worst since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Mississippi officials, like many of their colleagues throughout the nation, are looking for ways to save money to get through the crisis.
In the midst of budget woes caused by a continuing dip in state revenue collections, there has been talk of school district consolidation and of university mergers or closures as ways to save money.
Rumor is Gov. Haley Barbour will recommend some university mergers in his budget proposal later this month. If so, that will be the most controversial topic the Republican – now entering his final two years in office – will have tackled.
Whether the governor actually makes such a recommendation remains to be seen. Still, talk about consolidations, mergers or closures is fairly rampant.
The thinking is that eliminating administrative costs by getting rid of some school district superintendents and other central office personnel can save money, just as will eliminating some university presidents, sports teams and other extracurricular activities.
True, common sense says some money can be saved. The question is how much and is the effort worth the cost?
Closing or merging universities or consolidating school districts would be dramatic steps.
If Mississippians are really serious about taking dramatic actions to save taxpayer money in these tough economic times, there are many steps that could be taken.
For instance:
– Do we really need 82 counties – 24 more than California and 15 more than Florida?
– Do we really need separate municipal and county governments?
– Do we really need 15 separate community colleges?
– Do we really need a 174-member Legislature – at least 30 more members than any of our surrounding states?
– Do we really need eight statewide elected officials and all the staff they must hire? For instance, the duties of the state treasurer could be performed by the Department of Finance and Administration under the supervision of the governor. The duties of the commissioner of agriculture and commerce could be carried out by various other agencies.
In the past, the statewide-elected posts of land commissioner and tax collector were eliminated and their duties merged into other offices. The state didn’t miss a beat.
Then-incumbent Tax Collector William Winter led the effort in the 1960s to eliminate his post just as incumbent Land Commissioner John Ed Ainsworth did in the 1970s.
The list goes on and on of ways Mississippians could save taxpayer money on either the state or local levels.
The question, as stated earlier, is how far do we want to go?
Sure, the revenue picture is bleak right now. And true, in Mississippi there is never enough revenue to deal with all the real needs – needs that essentially center around the state’s high rate of poverty.
But this historically bad revenue picture will not last forever. Truth be known, it probably would be over before the state could successfully consolidate schools if leaders so chose or by the time they could merge or consolidate universities.
There are very real reasons to make changes. And yes, some of those changes might need to be made.
But all factors should be measured. People might prefer to direct a limited amount of their resources to ensure their city school district remains separate from the county district or vice versa. People might believe that the merit of having a separate – albeit small university with a specific mission – is worth the cost. People might prefer that their community college remain independent and tied to the needs of a specific region.
Common sense says the state can save money by taking such dramatic steps as consolidation or closure. Perhaps common sense also says any changes made should be done for the overall good of the state – not just to get past the current budget crunch. The entire impact of any change must be measured and not just in the vacuum of potential costs savings.
Contact Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Bobby Harrison by e-mail at
bobbyharrison@djournal.com or call him at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison