JACKSON – Over the many years I have observed the public scene in Mississippi as a journalist and seen the state remain at the bot- tom of every economic index, I’ve often concluded that we elect the leadership to keep us last.
There’s no better example than today’s controversy over the state taking federal aid to provide relief to our jobless workers in these hard times. Consider these facts:
n We have the nation’s lowest per capita income and highest poverty rate.
n We have the nation’s lowest unemployment insurance benefits. (A weekly max of $230, made subject to a raft of eligibility rules not used in most states.)
n Yet we have a governor threatening to reject $52 million in federal funds from President Obama’s new economic recovery package that would help families of Mississippi’s jobless workers buy groceries and pay the light bill. Talk about stimulus, that money would be stimulus at the grass roots.
Incredibly, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour is dithering purely on the basis of partisan posturing over taking the money from the new $728 billion economic recovery package. Barbour is balking because the state may need to make some slight changes in its restrictive unemployment laws that favor business and industry.
Barbour has resorted to an old scare tactic: charging that acceptance of the federal aid for the unemployed will mean a $17 million increase in payroll taxes paid by employers to the Unemployment Trust Fund. Notably, four years ago, Barbour pushed through the Legislature a CUT in the state’s payroll tax but left weekly benefits unchanged.
Thankfully, some state legislators have called out Barbour for his knee-jerk rejection of the federal aid earmarked for the unemployed. State Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson) on Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s legislative “Quorum” program last Wednesday declared that Barbour has “grossly misrepresented the facts” concerning acceptance of the funds.
Brown said Barbour lashed out even before the U.S. Department of Labor defined what constituted part-time jobs under the stimulus act.
Further, Brown said, the state will have an opportunity to choose from a menu of four options in the new act that include extending benefits to part-time workers.
Plus, the lawmaker warned, if federal aid is rejected and the state’s jobless rate depletes the Trust Fund below the minimum level required by the feds, “then we would be mandated to raise the payroll tax.”
When Barbour at the recent National Governors’ Conference voiced reasons why he objected to expanding coverage of part-time workers, a spokesman for National Employment Law Project (NELP, a Washington-based non-profit advocate for low-paid workers) charged that Barbour’s reasons were unfounded, pointing out that $7 billion is set aside in the recovery act for “incentive payments” to states to pay expanded benefits. Those payments would expire in three years for most states, but Mississippi would get five years, the NELP analyst said.
Mississippi lost 25,500 jobs between last May and December and had 105,600 jobless workers at the end of 2008.
But because of state qualifying restrictions, the Department of Labor showed only 24 percent drew unemployment benefits in 2007. Preliminary 2008 figures indicated some increase.
Mississippi now limits payroll taxes to $7,000 of workers’ wages (less than other states) and at 1.36 percent has one of the nation’s three lowest payroll taxes.
Compounding his threats to reject federal stimulus funds for jobless Mississippians, Barbour in remarks pejoratively said many hold part-time work because they “are not willing …to accept a fulltime job.” What about thousands who have to cut back on hours because of domestic violence (aren’t we first?) or hard-to-find child care?
And the hundreds of workers at Nissan, our premier job-producer, who have been cut to three days a week? Part-time?
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through firstname.lastname@example.org.