By Bill Minor
JACKSON – As practically every governor before him has done, Gov. Phil Bryant in his State of the State address to legislators boasted that Mississippi made economic progress the previous year.
Bryant enthusiastically told lawmakers that 2,700 new jobs had been “announced” in 2012, conveying the impression Mississippi’s employment rolls had increased that much. Trouble is, just the opposite had happened. According to state Department of Employment Security figures, Mississippi lost 1,800 payroll jobs in 2012 since the previous year.
Even worse, a year-end report by the College Board’s Economic Research Center shows that payroll employment in Mississippi is at its lowest level since 1996, and while most of the other states are recovering from the Great Recession that began in September, 2008, Mississippi is still lagging behind.
Governors of Mississippi are loath to admit that the state for decades has been stuck at the bottom of every national economic index, so each new governor paints an optimistic picture to divert the public’s attention from our economic morass. Haley Barbour embellished his job-creation proclivities so well people thought a miracle-job maker had finally arrived. However, when Barbour left after eight years in office, the state had a net loss of more than 30,000 jobs. The politically-clever Haley even masked the fact Ronnie Musgrove, the Democrat he beat in 2003 had landed automaker Nissan, the best heavy industry to arrive in many years.
Bryant hailed as his biggest 2012 accomplishment cutting business taxes and making Mississippi the “friendliest” to business nationally. Catering to business and industry in hopes of luring new jobs took a major step with Ross Barnett. On one hand posing as a friend to labor, Barnett meanwhile in 1960 installed a “Right to Work” provision in the state constitution without any real public discussion. Having RTW in its basic law was the unspoken signal to auto giants Nissan and Toyota that they are virtually assured of having a non-union shop in Mississippi.
Paul Johnson in the 1970s established the Mississippi Research and Development Center (dubbed the “Palace in the Pines”) as his legacy to beef up the state’s thin economy. Staffed with eggheads mostly imported from Georgia Tech, the R & D Center was headed by Dr. Ken Wagner, a developer and futurist who charmed the business community. When Wagner after six years produced no miracles, both he and most of his gold-plated team were shown the door.
Only Harvard-educated Ray Mabus as governor in the 1980s conveyed a realistic message about the state’s economic plight. He simply argued that under his leadership Mississippi “will never be last again.” Of course that never happened and before the visionary Mabus could produce a major legislative victory he was booted out by roughhewn building contractor Kirk Fordice, the state’s first Republican governor since post-Civil War reconstruction. Fordice’s eight-year tenure was marked by his constant battles with the Legislature and a marital scandal. But, in hindsight, the Kirkster may have opened the way 10 years later for the GOP to dominate state government.
Now with a pro-business GOP crowd controlling the legislative reins, there’s talk of reforming the state’s tax code. That likely will lead to a move to either eliminate or deeply cut the already-low state individual and corporate income taxes and shifting more tax burden to backs of low and middle wage earners. Mississippi’s 7 percent gross sales tax is already in the top bracket of sales tax states. Worse, we levy the full rate on groceries – even bread and milk. Practically every other sales tax state either exempts or has a reduced rate on groceries.
It will be interesting to see what kind of tax “reform” the Bryant Administration has up its sleeve.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.