Relief: Federal checks provide cover for Legislature

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stimulus money will shield Mississippi officials from making hard decisions this year and maybe next year, too. But it would be a major mistake to think legislators have escaped the fiscal corner into which they’ve painted the state.

Eyebrows have been raised since Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said Mississippi should think about it before accepting even a smidgen of the $787 billion package of grants and tax cuts President Barack Obama signed last week, but he’s not alone.

The governors of Texas, Louisiana, Alaska, South Carolina and Idaho, all Republicans, have questioned whether Congress has done the right thing — even if it will tide their states over with education, health care and infrastructure cash.

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“My concern is there’s going to be commitments attached to it that are a mile long,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. One such commitment in Mississippi, Barbour’s office said, would be to pay benefits to people who don’t now qualify under state law.

Mississippi House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, has scoffed at Barbour’s concerns. The veteran Democrat said Mississippi is in no position to stand on some philosophical principle. To avoid cuts in public education spending and health-care programs such as Medicaid, the money must and will be accepted, McCoy said.

The root reality here is that Mississippi has been robbing Peter to pay Paul for years now to keep up with commitments the Legislature has made by passing laws such as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and myriad Medicaid programs with no — zero — assurance of the state’s ability to come up with the cash as the programs grow and grow and grow.

It’s not that these are bad programs. Quite the opposite. There’s nothing wrong with making commitments to education at all levels. And there’s an expectation that government must provide medical services to those who can’t afford nursing home, hospital and doctor bills.

It was simply unwise governance — and remains unwise governance — to pass laws that commit the public treasury to provide open-ended amounts of money without an assured, dedicated revenue source.

Some predict that this year’s rescue money from Congress will lead to more next year and the year after and in perpetuity as the nation transitions to an even more centralized system. That may well occur.

But it needs to be clear in everyone’s mind that stimulus money is not a solution. Even before the national economy tanked and even when Mississippi’s income was rising year-to-year, the Legislature had over-pledged its resources. A couple of checks from Washington does not cure the irresponsibility shown through the years in Jackson.