To paraphrase the former U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster, one should heed the warning, "Get the women and children to safety. The Mississippi Legislature has started working on the budget!" Since the beginning of the session, there has been great concern over how the state would fund its $12 billion budget for fiscal year 2006.
Our governor and several of my colleagues have drawn a line in the sand against any new taxes. They contend that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. One member even asks if every dollar is being spent soundly. The answer would depend on whom you ask.
Right now, there are more than 700,000 Mississippians who need, not just want, the services provided by the government of the State of Mississippi. They may say "yes, and the state needs to spend more." There are some 200,000 Mississippians who are considered affluent or well-to-do. They may say "no and don't burden me anymore than you (the state) already have." That leaves the rest of us—where the bulk of the load is carried.
I will not tell you every state dollar is spent wisely. What I will say to you is that cutting services alone will not solve the problem; neither will only increasing our taxes. What is needed is a comprehensive plan to combat our short-term crisis and create an effective long-term strategy.
Comprehensive, in my mind, means cutting waste and fraud in government bureaucracies, making service delivery more efficient, creating and increasing new revenue streams and eliminating unnecessary tax exemptions. I have proposed in the past putting a 3-percent cap on state growth for a 10-year period. This would allow reasonable growth while the economy is still stagnant, but would create a disciplined surplus when the economy turns upward.
Next, cut every special-fund agency, agencies that generate their own monies, by their previous year's surplus. Then proceed, through performance evaluation, to cut most state agencies by 5 to 20 percent.
Next, consolidate the state's education system so that all school districts have at least 1,000 students. That would fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program at the current level of revenue. While we are on the topic of consolidation, eliminate or consolidate state agencies that duplicate services or have similar objectives.
For example, if we were to eliminate the federal regulatory component of the Department of Environmental Quality this year—let the federal government regulate air, water and land pollution—and allow the agency to create fees to handle the state regulations, we would have enough money to keep every state park open for the next fiscal year and beyond.
Another example would be to combine the Departments of Public Safety and Corrections and take other law-enforcement components out of other state agencies and put them with this new Public Safety/ Corrections hybrid.
Next, raise certain taxes and increase service fees, like tobacco or alcohol, and dedicate them to agencies related to their use, like Medicaid; then overhaul the entire state tax system to eliminate or reduce the nearly $1 billion in exemptions we give away annually, while adding back the 6 percent bracket on income tax and keeping options open to new revenue streams.
Finally, the governor needs to use his bully pulpit to convince the business community to raise the salaries of workers in this state. As long as we are 50th in the nation in median income, the tax burden will continue to be heavy on our people. In the meantime, to stimulate the economy, allow workers who get overtime a tax exemption on their overtime pay and reduce the sales tax on groceries to 2 percent, with 100 percent of the tax to go to cities and counties where our citizens reside.
I am throwing this idea on the wall to see if it sticks. The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus has introduced SB3023, a comprehensive funding bill, which covers these points.
If the leadership of the House and Senate would be as comprehensive in their strategies and not just to posture at each other over the fence, maybe, just maybe, we could have a balanced budget by April 7, 2005. Here's to wishful thinking.
Rep Erik Fleming represents District 72 in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He regularly contributes to the Jackson Free Press. We also welcome viewpoints of other Jackson-area lawmakers.