Economic development, higher education intertwine

By Sid Salter

CLEVELAND – At his speech here to the movers and shakers in the Mississippi Delta’s business, agricultural, educational and political circles, Gov. Phil Bryant’s remarks were met with more than polite applause. Bryant, the mechanic’s son from Moorhead, understands the Delta region’s challenges as lessons from his boyhood.
Bryant told the audience at the Delta Council’s 77th annual meeting that he understood the interrelationship of higher education and agribusiness in that region. Bryant said: “As always, I am mindful of the impact that agriculture has on the economy of the Mississippi Delta. It is big business, and economists at Mississippi State University estimate that the activities associated with production agriculture in the Delta account for more than 1.5 billion dollars of annual income and employ more than 55 thousand people. We should support this industry, not only by treating it like the major employer that it is, but also by creating a minimal regulatory environment.”
The governor likewise praised the role Delta State University has played in the pursuit of the establishment of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and the Mississippi Grammy Museum – both viable tourism alternatives for a Delta region that has natural resources, culture and music that people already visit from around the globe. Bryant said: “It is my hope that more and more often, local efforts like these, partnered with state level efforts like those my Mississippi Works agenda, will yield an economy that is ripe for expansion and a workforce that is prepared to embrace new opportunities.”
But higher education and economic development efforts alike will over the next fiscal year face some significant constraints based on the inability of the Legislature to reach agreement on a bond bill for fiscal year that begins July 1. The House handed the Senate a $250 million bond bill. The Senate countered with a $120 million package that was actually $73M in bonds and $50M in appropriations.
The bond bills were proposed as the state was set to retire $284 million in existing bonds, but with another $1.2 billion in existing bonding authority authorized by the Legislature but not yet issued by the state.
The House leadership said they believed that the bonded expenditures, particularly in higher education, were justified, and that they demonstrated fiscal responsibility by being careful to issue less new debt than was being retired. House leaders also cited historically low interest rates as evidence that long term investment in the state’s infrastructure was not only justified but prudent.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves argued that the state needed to be weaned from new annual outlays of bonded indebtedness and to begin to retire the state’s existing $4.1 billion in total long-term debt to reduce what he said was $450 million in annual state debt service payments.
In the end, the bond bill died at that political impasse. Major projects like a library expansion at Mississippi University for Women, construction of a new School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the School of Nursing at the University of Southern Mississippi were contained in the failed bond request from higher education in the state.
As a result, tuition costs will rise an average of 14 percent across the board over the next two years. In 2000, 37 percent of higher education funding came from the state and 32 percent from tuition. In 2012, 37 percent of funding comes from the state and 57 percent from tuition. Those ratios have consequences in terms of access to higher education in the poorest state in the union.
The failure of the bond bill was one of three major disagreements between the new Republican leadership troika of Bryant, Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn. Is there a special session in the state’s future over the bond bill issue? Watch and wait.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.