If feds go on spending diet, Mississippi will starve

Published 1:00 am Sunday, December 4, 2011

OXFORD — A problem will arise for Gov.-elect Phil Bryant if the federal government does as he advises by getting its fiscal house in order. Mississippi will go belly-up.

There are many ironies in politics.

In August, Bryant capped years of effective public service by easily winning the Republican nomination. The lieutenant governor completely dodged a nationwide anti-incumbent fervor that put “former” in front of the titles of many officials.

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In November, Bryant followed up by polling more votes than any candidate for governor in the history of Mississippi.

The person Bryant is to replace, Haley Barbour, received 470,000 votes in 2003 to defeat incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove. Four years later in a low-turnout contest, Barbour won 430,000 votes. In this year’s general election, Bryant polled 530,000.

It must be conceded that the three citizen initiatives on the ballot are credited with driving turnout, but it must also be noted that Bryant barely mentioned Democratic nominee and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree. Instead of running against his opponent, Bryant’s consistent theme was to “send a message to liberals in Washington.”

Bryant’s materials praised his prudent and tight-fisted 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 the state’s residents send to Washington — Mississippi would be deeply awash in red ink.

This is not limited to extras or fluff. We’re talking basic, operational dollars. Barbour accepted $2.8 billion from the federal stimulus package passed 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 that 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 Medicaid.

For a long time, federal dollars flowing into state operations were marginal, even optional. Not in more recent years.

According to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, in the pre-recession year 2007 Mississippi spent $14.3 billion on everything — roads, schools, health care, law enforcement, operations. Of that total, state-source funds provided $8.4 billion and federal funds provided $5.9 billion.

It’s just disingenuous to tell people that if Congress balanced the national budget the way Mississippi balances the state budget, everything would be OK. Federal funds covered 41 percent of state spending four years ago and the proportion has only increased since.

The endless pit is Medicaid, for which Mississippi revenue pays less than a fifth of total costs, with the balance coming from the federal treasury. It has been a long time since legislators had to ante up the real cost of the program. Before the stimulus, Barbour had wrangled post-Katrina allocations to cover the share that normally would have come from state sources.

While nearly one in five Mississippians are now enrolled in the program that provides health-care services to the poor and disabled, the numbers are rising with the poor economy. 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 of federal money coming to the state outside state channels. Operations of the Corps of Engineers, federal contracts with private industry, even operations of federal law enforcement agencies and courts pour money into Mississippi.

Citizens Against Waste now ranks Mississippi sixth nationally, up from ninth the previous year, in receipt of earmarks. 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, but for the sake of honesty if nothing else Bryant should admit his record of prudent fiscal management has largely been built on infusion of federal dollars.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.