T-word: State opting to live within its means

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A cheerful aspect of news from the Capitol is that though Mississippi’s financial picture looks grim, the T-word has yet to arise.

Almost 20 years have passed since the state’s last general tax increase — a 1 percentage point jump to today’s 7 percent general sales tax — was enacted over the veto of former Gov. Kirk Fordice in the first year of his first term.

It’s not clear whether to credit Tea Party (Taxed Enough Already) activism or pending elections, but legislators have been loathe even to hint at an across-the-board hike. Instead, the collective decision is apparently that Mississippi will live within its diminishing income — down this year from 2009, down in the coming year and expected to nosedive in 2012.

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It’s also far too soon to say whether a decades-long cycle has been broken. Succinctly, the cycle has been this: Mississippi has never had enough money to satisfy all needs. In years when its income rose, every penny was allocated and new programs were added based on projections of even greater income. Then, when there was a downturn in the economy, the Legislature would increase taxes.

People tend to think in election cycles, but it’s informative to look at state spending over a longer term. It took from 1817 until 1990 for the state to increase general fund expenses to $2 billion. The spending plan for the 12 months starting July 1, though down 8 percent overall from this year, will be $5.5 billion.

Through the nearly 20 years without a general tax increase, the state’s income has risen almost annually and sometimes by double-digit percentages. This can be attributed to a bustling national economy and near-full employment for several years, to casino development and to major infusions of cash in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and via the American Resource and Recovery Act.

Money from that latter source, more often called the federal stimulus, dries up over the next 14 months and the state’s budget reserve or “rainy day fund” will be depleted. That’s what makes prospects for 2012 look even worse than the budget year to come.

There’s an inexhaustible list of worthy causes for public spending. None of us will live long enough to hear legislators complaining about too much income for this state. If the consensus is for the state to do the best it can with what it has, that’s a welcomed development. Now, if Congress would only take the same approach….