We feel it's important to ask a serious question of Gov. Haley Barbour—has he returned to Mississippi to govern the state, or just to test his pet ideological theories about what wins elections?
His adherence to a strict no-new-taxes pledge by any means necessary might be great fodder for his next book on the future of the Republican Party platform—of which he is, undoubtedly, an important architect. But his pledge, at this moment in time and in his home state, flies in the face of responsible governance, particularly when you consider that there are taxes—such as the tobacco tax—which should be raised in this state immediately, both to help fund vital programs like the Mississippi Adequate Education and the Medicaid PLADs program and to help reduce the incidence of smoking-related deaths and greater health-care costs to the taxpayer in the future. Planning ahead is simply smart and a way to run Mississippi in a business-like and compassionate fashion.
What's even more vexing if that Gov. Barbour holds out his "no new taxes" (or not even a single fee) pledge even when it flies in the face of the will of the people. It would be one thing if the majority of Mississippians actually agreed with his pledge, but they do not. In multiple polls by the Stennis Institute of Government, Mississippians of both parties say that they're willing to see cigarette taxes go up if the result would be revenues that could be put to health care and education in Mississippi.
The argument against the cigarette tax? People might drive to Arkansas to get cigarettes. We think not. We, however, wouldn't mind seeing the incidence of smoking go down among young people, before they develop a deadly habit, because the tax is a true deterrence.
It is rather remarkable to observe current developments at the state Legislature, where the governor and his supporters in the Senate, many of whom seem incapable of thinking or speaking without his blessing, have the state of Mississippi's neck in a noose. They then expound the rhetoric that we are in a budget crisis; therefore, it's time to tighten our belts. The funny thing is, no one up there that we know of disagrees with that. Legislators of all stripes know cuts and tightening are in the offing and are ready to come to the table to hammer out ways to do just that.
It is Mr. Barbour, however, who is the monkey wrench. His arrogant attitude is that it is his way or the highway—that he will consider no new tax or fee regardless of what cuts to vital programs that Mississippians want—such as public education and Medicaid—will result.
He is right about one thing, though: Mississippi's budget is in crisis; partly because of the poor state of the overall economy and partly because the Bush administration has put a serious squeeze on local governments that is starting to feel more like a stranglehold with mandates that they cannot afford and that cynics might argue are designed to bankrupt vital social programs (for hints on that, read the book Barbour did write back in 1996: "Agenda for America). States and municipalities have been forced to contend with unfunded mandates like No Child Left Behind (federal laws that have to be followed even when the federal government doesn't offer the dollars for them), homeland security, war and the costs of supporting Reservists, and through the decreased revenues that have resulted from the first four years of Bush's ideological tax-cut policy. Generally, such a hit to the coffers of the federal government means that the bill "trickles down" to state and local government, causing a great burden on state legislatures such as ours.
It's not every day that we agree with Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter, but he called out the governor and lawmakers for delivering the "no new tax" pledge on a "political manure truck." He wrote last Sunday: "[T]hey can all hold a straight face and tell you that they've raised no new state taxes. But in doing so, they have also perpetrated on you and every other Mississippi taxpayer a form of political identity theft; right now, their actions are virtually guaranteeing many taxpayers an increase in their local taxes."
Way to tell the truth, Brother Sid.
It is time that Barbour stop spouting ideology and do the math. The budget crisis in Mississippi simply cannot be solved by cuts alone. Perhaps Mr. Barbour prefers corporate welfare—such as the $70,000 per job that was spent for Northup Grumman at his request—that means gambling taxpayer money on whether certain corporations will stay in the state long enough for us to reap the benefits of our high-dollar investments in their futures. If Mr. Barbour wants to "invest" in Mississippi, then he should take government dollars and "invest" them in education, in health care, and in research and development within the university system.
No one likes new taxes. We don't. But now is the time to look for a tax or two that people can live with. The cigarette tax is an example of that. In the Stennis Institute study released in December, 80 percent of respondents—of both parties—supported increasing the cigarette tax if the revenue was earmarked for health care. More than 65 percent of smokers said they would support the tax if the money goes to health care.
So why does the governor insist on putting his own agenda above the will of the people of the state that he governs—particularly a will that is so universally expressed? We can't answer that for him, but we're left with the same question we started with. Is the governor here to govern the state of Mississippi or just to lobby for legislation that fits his ideology and benefits his (former and perhaps future) clients?
Here's hoping Gov. Barbour will step up and govern at some point in the near future. A state as poor as Mississippi simply cannot afford the Bush/Barbour ideological experiment. It is time for the games to end, and for Haley Barbour to start working for the people of Mississippi.
The Clarion-Ledger picked up our strain in their editorial today, calling for the Senate to stop sitting on its hands and get involved in trying to figure out budget solutions:
While the Mississippi House has been exploring various options to meet a projected gap of nearly $1 billion between anticipated revenues and expenses in the state budget, the Senate seems more intent on mouthing Gov. Haley Barbour's rhetoric about "streamlining" government.
The House has anticipated Medicaid running out of money by Feb. 28 with a short-term fix of taking $29 million from tax collections and $20.6 million from the state's rainy day fund to keep it afloat through March. It also is looking at fee hikes and other revenue plans, including a 50-cent per pack cigarette tax hike, for more permanent funding.
In the Senate, though, there are only vague assurances of some kind of bill by the end of February, hinting at Barbour's wish to remove Personnel Board protection from most state employees for a year. But that's not a budget solution so much as a potential political maneuver.
Good for the Ledge for calling out the Senate for a change.