EDITORIAL: A sea change

By NEMS Daily Journal

Northeast Mississippi’s long and largely positive experience in taking advantage of what the federal government offers is in the process of a culture change that has profound implications for governments, businesses and all the agencies receiving any kind of federal funding.
Our state has had two Senate and one House Appropriations committee chairmen within a span of three decades, plus two House members who have sat on the Appropriations Committee: Sen. Roger Wicker during his House tenure and Rep. Alan Nunnelee now. The Senate chairmen were John Stennis and Thad Cochran. The House chair was Jamie Whitten.
Those plum committee assignments coupled with seniority, better economic times and the practice of earmarking funds already authorized (not over and above as commonly mislabeled) has worked to our advantage in infrastructure, university growth and achievement, and spending coupled with private-sector initiatives.
This year, the first without earmarks in decades and in a perilous time of high federal debt and deficits, the money from Capitol Hill isn’t as easy to come by.
Last week, for example, Nunnelee said in an editorial board meeting with the Daily Journal that austerity probably demands that Tupelo lose commercial air service rather than continue to rely on a federal subsidy. Commercial airlines have served Tupelo continuously for more than 50 years, but airline changes and airport competition worked together to require Tupelo’s seeking help from a program named Essential Air Service. It will not be funded under budget cuts adopted by Congress this month.
Nunnelee’s vote required fortitude because Tupelo’s official, bipartisan position has been to get whatever funds it takes to keep air service. National austerity, Nunnelee indicated, is more pressing than a subsidy for Tupelo.
Earlier, both Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker offered no encouragement for getting federal funds to sustain operations at the Crow’s Neck Environmental Education Center on Bay Springs Lake, part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Both senators could have been relied on, in former similar situations, to seek some kind of federal assistance.
The spending cuts made this month came from discretionary spending, the money that’s appropriated rather than mandated by an entitlement formula like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.
All three entitlements are important because they equate to big business, they’re popular within their constituencies, and consume huge portions of the federal budget by law from year to year. Congress must address them soon as well.
The budget cuts this month and authorized cuts from future spending are only the first wave in what necessarily will be huge reductions, and the pain will be across the board if reductions are proportionate and fair.
Mississippi’s overwhelmingly conservative congressional delegation through the decades has been a consistent appropriator for the things Mississippians requested.
Cochran said in a floor speech supporting the cuts that he believes the legislative branch will retain some sway over how budgets for departments and agencies are divided, and he is almost certainly correct, but the good old days are gone.
Some communities, some elected officials, civic leaders and economic developers will be turned away empty-handed when trips are made to meet with the delegation seeking help, particularly through earmarks.
The new method places the authority for line-item spending in the hands of Washington bureaucrats under executive-branch control – that would be President Obama for now – and outside the influence of legislative prerogative.
The times are changing.