JACKSON – When the revered 1890 state Constitution was written, it was the era of the progressive movement. The mood was anti-corporation, distrustful of big business. Corporations were limited to $1 million, child labor laws, though opposed by the cotton and lumber mills, were enacted, even before the feds did it. Unions were respected.
My, how things have changed in this state. We still have the same constitution – if in name only. But the once-hated corporate interests have turned Mississippi’s governance upside-down. They now control the state’s leadership and set the tax structure, seeing to it that income taxes are kept low, and consumers carry 80 percent of the tax load. Business-industry lobbyists swarm legislative corridors.
Governors are elected because they out-promise contenders on creating new jobs – no matter how much taxpayer money is used to lure business and industry here. New plants are guaranteed they won’t have unions to contend with and laws of equity are capped to limit tort compensation for company negligence.
How absurd is it that at a time most of the state’s present delegation in Congress votes against federal stimulus money provided to the state by an administration trying to pull the nation from the brink of a depression, without the stimulus money the state would have had to empty the state treasury to fund state services.
The idea of giving stimulus money from state taxes to private or public entities is old hat in Mississippi. Actually the state started it 70 years ago under the BAWI (Balance Agriculture With Industry) program, using public bond money to provide plant sites, and later, even manufacturing machinery, for new industries to locate here.
Other lures were added: such as forgiving property taxes as part of the package, as well as building new roads or relocating rail lines. In recent years, so many taxpayer paid sweeteners have been put into the plant-location package that it costs Mississippi taxpayers some $150,000 for every job the industry proposes to bring (sometimes even never opening its doors, as in the case of Haley Barbour’s highly-touted Toyota plant near Tupelo.)
Recently, Barbour was on the verge of calling a special legislative session to enact legislation to locate an unnamed plant, supposedly in impoverished Tunica County. Some hitch developed and the session didn’t happen. A New York Times business writer who seems to know more about it than the people of Mississippi said on NPR three weeks ago that Barbour was planning to spend $147,000 per job for the plant, which would be owned by a foreign company.
We pride ourselves on being a strong free enterprise state. But where has it gotten us? We have the nation’s lowest per capita income; we’re last in medical care coverage; government transfer payments are our biggest source of individual income; we’re first only in obesity.
Enactment of a 2 percent sales tax in 1932 saved the state from bankruptcy. Yet, today state leaders won’t even talk about raising additional revenue, namely taxes. Deep budget cuts for state services are brought forth as the only recourse when bad times come along. Twice in this decade when recessions have shrunk revenues from the existing tax structure, draconian agency cuts have been made. The result: higher education, because of tuition hikes, is becoming virtually been out of reach for lower income families; and enrichment programs in our public schools are made impossible as school districts just struggle to stay afloat.
Former Gov. William Winter, who knows something about times when tax hikes become essential to save public education, recently told a public affairs forum that in the state’s present revenue crunch a hike in the income tax should be considered first for new revenue. It got no mention in news media.
So, what’s the future for this state, a state that has floundered in the backwaters of national economic progress since the Civil War? The kind of leadership we elect must be critical. Might that mean then that a Huey Long someday will amass a black-neck, red-neck coalition in Mississippi and drive the corporate crowd from the temple of governmental power? Think about it.
Bill Minor, a nationally honored journalist, has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at PO Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.