BILL MINOR: Conservative Mississippi never turns down a government handout

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Right-wingers who are self-proclaimed “constitutional conservatives” (whatever that is) have polluted the public dialogue with slogans like “taking back our country” and branding every governmental reform from health care to auto industry bailouts as “socialism.”
All of this prattle made me look inward at major governmental reforms in Mississippi which over the years could have been branded as socialism because they came about as the result of state governmental intervention into the private enterprise sector.
The irony of it is that Mississippi, whose people considers themselves the paragon of private enterprise, have accepted state government’s intervention into free enterprise without raising an eyebrow.
The prime example of such programs is the state’s use of public bond issues to provide construction sites and erect buildings for commercial industry plants as a lure to get the industry to locate in the state and provide jobs for Mississippians.
Actually, when the state in 1936 under Gov. Hugh White launched its BAWI (Balance Agriculture with Industry) program, it became a pioneer in using state credit and taxing power to provide construction sites and erect buildings for private industries to locate in the state. (Later, the BAWI law was expanded to include providing machinery and equipment for the industry.)
Some public figures, who branded the BAWI law as socialism, challenged its constitutionality in the courts. It went all the way to the state Supreme Court where it was upheld in 1938 in a split decision. One justice contended that the idea ranked as Communism. The court’s in historic decision held the law constitutional under the public welfare clause.
You could call the idea of the state providing capital for private corporations as a form of bribery to come to locate in Mississippi. If the industry goes bust, the vacant plant is left in the lap of the state. Mississippi’s program is much akin to the Obama Administration’s 2009 bailout of the U.S. automobile industry when it owned 60 percent of General Motors and Chrysler.
Ironically, when Mississippi landed its first auto industry plants – Nissan at Canton in 2002 and Toyota near Tupelo in 2008 – the state had to put up $700 million in state-backed bonds to lure the two huge automobile corporations to locate here. Plus, they were given a bushel of state and local tax breaks. (Special legislation was passed to exempt Nissan from paying Canton school district taxes.)
Recently, Gov. Haley Barbour, who prides himself as a staunch advocate for private enterprise, has pushed through other state-backed bond funding projects. The latest authorizes a $75 million state loan to an outfit called Kior which says it can make auto grade fuel from wood chips. And we thought roll of the dice games were at gambling casinos on the Coast or along the Mississippi River.
In 1966, Mississippi became the last state to repeal statewide prohibition of alcoholic beverages. It installed a system of local option legalization and with it the state went full tilt into the liquor business, becoming the monopoly wholesaler of all booze and wine shipped into the state and sold at state-licensed, private sector liquor stores. Take that, private enterprise.
We used to think that government price control was a wartime measure that went out with the end of World War II. But no, it lives on in Mississippi. The state’s ABC (otherwise the state Tax Commission) fixes the price of booze sold wholesale to liquor stores and adds a 27.5 percent markup on every bottle. It may come as a surprise to the Tea Party crowd in Mississippi to know that the state runs this multi-million dollar business.
You hear a lot of people on the right quoting the U.S. Constitution and what the Founders were thinking.
Here’s what esteemed former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan had to say about that: “It is arrogant to pretend that from our vantage point we can gauge accurately the intent of the Framers on application of principle to specific contemporary questions.”

Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.