By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Last week, I discussed in broad strokes the up-side of the Mississippi Economic Council’s “Blueprint” – a comprehensive, incremental plan to improve the state’s economic future and quality of life. There also is a downside, particularly because the year-long, privately funded study was a missed opportunity to tackle a core problem – glaring inequities in the state tax code.
Lots of excellent goals for governmental reform are in the Blueprint, some necessarily costing expenditure of money. Blueprint, however, strangely doesn’t even touch how the state could raise some more revenue to pay for them. No one is predicting any burst of new revenue from existing taxes in the foreseeable future, so growth can’t be counted on to pay the bill for upgraded services.
In short, the state’s present tax structure puts a heavier burden on lower income people who pay the most regressive taxes, namely the state’s 7 percent gross sales tax which puts the full rate on groceries. At the same time it lightly taxes corporations and business.
While Mississippi’s sales tax ranks at the top of the national list, its 5 percent top income tax rate for both individuals and corporations is among the lowest in the Southeast region. Florida and Tennessee levy no individual income tax, but make it up on various corporate taxes.
Perhaps it is understandable that since the Blueprint study was sponsored by a business organization, though with considerable input by university research, the plan reflects the business community’s point of view which has a low tax bent. Also, because corporate and business interests have spent tons of money shaping taxes, they’re allergic to any legislative tinkering with tax rates.
But there’s indication from some familiar with production of the year-long study that there’s a division in perspective between the hard line anti-tax manufacturing class and the merchant class, in how recommendations calling for expenditures may be implemented by the Legislature.
The goal of the Blueprint process, as its overall chair, Dr. Hank Bounds, state commissioner of higher education said, is to “move our once low-wage, low-skill economy into a middle-skill, higher-wage and creative-based economy.” In sum, Blueprint’s goal is a broad-based plan aimed at getting Mississippi off the bottom of the economic ladder. But what worries many is that despite 85 years (ever since BAWI) of subsidizing and giving industry a tempting smorgasbord of giveaway tax lures, the state has not improved significantly the metrics of its societal deficits such as teenage births, school dropouts, and health care.
As I previously pointed out, the most significant immediate governmental reform recommended in the MEC Blueprint is initiating a public early childhood program (pre-K) which the study said would provide a vital cornerstone of the public education system. While no figures were given in Blueprint as to the cost of the pre-K program, authorities have estimated it at $350 million, based on 43,000 children entering the program annually.
In any case, while Blueprint doesn’t pretend to offer any magic bullet to lift Mississippi out of the nation’s backwaters, MEC president Blake Wilson, the inspirational chieftain of the huge non-government supported study, is optimistic about the state’s future and its ability to keep its brightest and best students in the state. Without visionaries such as Wilson, the state will never move ahead.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.