By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – A problem for Gov.-elect Phil Bryant is this: If the federal government adopts his self-professed “tight-fisted” fiscal style, Mississippi will go belly-up.
In an instant.
In August, Bryant capped decades of effective public service by easily winning the Republican nomination for the state’s top office. The lieutenant governor was untouched by a nationwide anti-incumbent fervor that put “former” in front of the titles of many officials.
And then in November, Bryant polled more votes than any candidate for governor in the history of Mississippi.
Granted, three citizen initiatives on the ballot drove turnout, but Bryant attracted major support with his theme of sending “send a message to liberals in Washington.” He barely mentioned his opponent, Democratic nominee and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree.
And liberals are best known for what? Big spending.
Bryant’s materials praised his prudent management of Mississippi’s money and balanced state budgets “while Washington struggles to deal with the federal budget and overspending of the current administration.”
The reality, however, is that without major infusions of federal cash – far more than Mississippians send to Washington – Mississippi would already be bankrupt.
These federal dollars have not been spent on extras or fluff. We’re talking basic, operational dollars. Gov. Haley Barbour accepted $2.8 billion from the federal stimulus package in the early months of President Barack Obama’s administration. That money made up for sharp drops in state sales, property and income tax revenue.
But cash from Congress started arriving long before and it is a distraction to think of this as a Democratic thing or a Republican thing. It’s a state money versus federal money thing. It involves all 50 states and a shift of authority and dependence that started a couple of generations ago with innocent “little” programs such as school lunches and, at the time, Medicaid.
For a long time, federal dollars flowing into state operations were marginal, even optional. Transportation money for roads, waterways, airports. Development money for utilities. Not in more recent years.
According to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, in the pre-recession year 2007 Mississippi spent $14.3 billion. Of that total, state-source funds provided $8.4 billion and federal-source funds provided $5.9 billion.
Do the math. Forty-one cents of every “state” dollar wasn’t a state dollar.
It’s just disingenuous to tell people that if Congress balanced the national budget the way Mississippi balances its budget, everything would be OK. And the dependence on federal aid has skyrocketed since 2008.
The bottomless pit is Medicaid, for which Mississippi revenue pays less than a fifth of total costs. The balance comes from the federal treasury. It has been a long time since legislators had to ante up its real share of Medicaid, too. Before the stimulus boost, Barbour had wrangled post-Katrina allocations to cover the share that normally would have come from state sources. And former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove wrangled a way to use federal dollars as matching money for more federal dollars.
Nearly one in five Mississippians are now enrolled in the program started to provide health-care services to the poor and disabled and the numbers are rising due to joblessness. Bryant correctly says what’s called Obamacare will also increase the demand for state health-care dollars. Even smaller programs, such as free meals in public schools, are surging. The New York Times reported last week a 17 percent increase in the number of students whose parents say they can’t afford to feed them.
On top of the federal money handed over for state government to spend, there is an enormous amount spent directly or through local governments. Federal contracts paid directly to private industry and even operations of federal law enforcement agencies and courts pour federal money into Mississippi.
So do “earmarks.” Citizens Against Waste now ranks Mississippi sixth nationally, up from ninth the previous year, in that category. Largely thanks to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and his quiet but effective work on the state’s behalf, the per-capita allocation to Mississippi in 2010 was $109, four times the national average of $27 per person.
Now, we’re told there will be no more earmarks. And in January we inaugurate another governor who wags a finger of shame at Washington’s excesses.
That’s all well and good. It’s well past time for a reckoning.
But for the sake of honesty let’s stop pretending there’s no linkage between what Congress spends and what the Legislature spends.
Let’s stop being like a spoiled kid who mocks his parents for running up credit card debt. They’re providing him clothing, food and shelter, but he claims to be smarter because he doesn’t overspend his allowance.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.