BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – Democratic legislators from around North Mississippi held a town hall meeting Saturday morning at East Mississippi Community College. District 12 Representative Jay Hughes and District 7 Senator Hob Bryan joined District 41 Rep. Kabir Karriem, District 38 Rep. Tyrone Ellis, District 42 Rep. Carl Mickens, District 36 Rep. Karl Gibbs and District 16 Senator Angela Turner Ford on a rainy Saturday morning to talk about recent legislative action.
The event was strongly attended by citizens from Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties.
“There’s a commercial that I like to use as an analogy,” Ellis said during his opening remarks. “There’s a little boy trying to undo the belt on his pants, and then he calls for his mom and says ‘we have a situation.’ He’s desperate. As citizens, we have a situation. We are in dire need of some leadership at the state level.
“For the last several years we have tried to give away the store,” Ellis. “Literally give it away. I can tell you that a $427 million tax cut for corporate America is just disastrous. We have revenue shortfalls left and right and they’re giving away the store. Who’s going to pick up that shortfall? Municipalities and counties are going to have to pick that up. City and county leaders, get ready to reach in your pocket to pick up the shortfall. Taxpayers, get ready to reach into your pocket books, too, because it’s going to hit you at the end of the day.
“We have the institutional knowledge to help alleviate some of this, but to do it you have to have a seat at the table,” Ellis said. “You have to have someone who can sit down with some ideas. Unfortunately with the partisanship that we have, we do not have that. Regardless of how much time you have seniority-wise or how much education you have you are not invited to the table to present your ideas and your concepts. Even though I am the ranking member on Ways and Means, I still don’t have the opportunity to have the input to get some things done. I work as close as I can with the chairman to make sure that we as a community are taken care of.”
Hughes spoke at length about taxes, the state’s revenue shortfall and education.
Hughes is a Texas native who currently lives in Oxford. He is a developer as well as a lawyer. He is also a veteran.
“I’m a veteran,” he said. “I’m a business owner. I’ve created a thousand jobs for Mississippians. I don’t ask for tax credits. I don’t need that to stay in this state. What I do ask for is an educated workforce and skilled labor. That’s what attracts me. That’s what keeps me here. Why can we not pass laws that educate our citizens and train them instead of giving away a couple of hundred million dollars?
“I always watch the State of Union,” he said. “I always was impressed to hear, even when my father didn’t have a job, Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter or Reagan say ‘the state of the union is good.’ We have a state of the state, and it’s bad. It’s scary. Wouldn’t it be nice if our governor actually said that? We are screwed. We are broke. And why are we?
“We deal with a fiscal year in Mississippi that is July through June,” he said. “If you have a checkbook at home, yours is by the month and you go January to December. Our checkbook runs July 1 through June 30. We didn’t have enough money last year, so everyone took less. Public education, K-12, took $176 million less. That’s how they started. Medicaid took tens of millions less. Mental health, community colleges and universities, all had to start with less in the checkbook than the minimum amount they needed. Even with that, we have since then had to cut that checkbook by $151 million.
“They kept saying revenue is down,” he said. “No kidding. It’s down because we keep cutting revenue. The sad reality is those numbers are not going up. I guarantee you we will see another $40 million cut in the next month or two because it’s not there. I love it when the governor said I’m forced to make these cuts. Well, you weren’t forced to sign the tax cuts. What we come down to is that we are broke.”
Hughes distributed a list documenting the tax cuts that have been given from 2012-16 and their impact on the state’s budget.
“One at a time, it’s just we’re going to give a little break on a premium tax,” he said. “We’re going to give a little break on this in the name of economic development. We’re going to give a break on aircraft tax, and they all sound great. You could have an atomic bomb bill and name it the Lollipops for Special Needs Kids Bill. The title doesn’t have anything to do with the law. These were all called business development, and they’re attracting business. It’s the Sunshine, Rainbow and Unicorn Act. This year the budget is missing $353 million in revenue. That money came out of mental health, Medicaid, roads and bridges, K-12, community colleges and universities.”
Taxes are being shifted from the corporate world to individuals, he said. He compared three consumer taxes – sales tax, individual income tax and insurance premium tax – against three corporate taxes – corporate income tax, the use tax and the oil severance tax.
“In the last three years, under the Republican supermajority, the reality is that individual taxation has increased by $290 million and during the exact same three years corporate taxes have decreased $158 million. Put together, that is a $450 million tax shift. When one group begins to pay more and the other pays less, it’s a tax shift. That’s what happening.
“It’s interested how last year our unemployment rate was the worst in the nation and our gross product and our revenue was worst in the nation our governor, lieutenant governor and speaker said you can’t look at those numbers because they are not reliable,” he said. “They said they worry about people who are not working, not a number that includes people who don’t want a job. Last week we had the lowest unemployment rate in Mississippi in 13 years – still the worst in the nation – and the governor hails it as how great we’re doing. Apparently we only have reliable data when it supports an agenda of a tax shift.”
Another tax shift is coming in the area of libraries, Hughes said.
“I’m on the library committee,” he said. “It is as active as cold molasses. Last year and this year we met…oh, no, we didn’t. Not even once. Because libraries are for poor people and it’s a waste of government money. The reality is that libraries are everything about education.
They are about jobs. They are about improving oneself when one leaves school. There were times before we could afford internet when I went down and did research for caselaw at the library because I was a one-man show trying to make a start as an attorney, and the library was the first place with internet. But also think of how many jobs you have to apply for on-line, but 39 percent of Mississippi households do not have internet. Libraries are critical.
“What is happening now is that they are cutting funding to libraries, and the stated reason is that they want the local communities to have ‘skin in the game,’” he said. “‘Skin in the game’ is Latin for ‘tax shift.’ What they’re saying is we’re going to stop funding you from the state and make you pay locally. That gives them a chance to say when re-election time comes up that they cut your taxes in Jackson. No, you didn’t pay what you were supposed to pay and now we’re suffering and paying more locally.
“It’s the same with the schools, without a doubt,” he said. “They want to talk about throwing money at K-12 education. We’re not even dragging money to it, must less throwing it. They want to say it’s the biggest budget item in the state. There are 50 states, and in all 50 K-12 education is the number one expense. It is the biggest investment we make. One of the things I struggle with is why you attack public schools as being failing as if they’re just the most evil thing. We are not throwing money at schools, we are underfunding them.
“We have given away $2 billion in corporate incentives in the same number of years that we have shorted public schools $2 billion,” he said. “They complain that MAEP is an antiquated formula. The MAEP is adequate. It’s not great. It’s adequate, and that’s all we’re saying. After 2,000 hours and hundreds of hearings the state came up with this program. Haley Barbour made some improvements and then still said it was adequate. I don’t know of anyone who is going to send their child out to a track meet or to take a test and ‘I hope you’re adequate.’ Is that the standard we really want?
“What we’ve done is that we’ve given less than adequate every year,” he said. “This year we’ve played a bigger game – they wanted to change the formula in secret and hire a company called EdBuild without anyone knowing about it. EdBuild is founded by charter school companies, and it’s an attempt to get private hands on public money. They promised they would have a new formula on Jan. 1. Here’s what the new formula was going to be. If $10 is what we give public education when we are supposed to give them $15, the new formula is going to say $10 is what we’re supposed to give Then everybody can go home and say ‘we fully funded it!’ We have made an effort to educate and inform our fellow citizens in every community, and now there still isn’t a new formula. I believe it’s because my Republican colleagues are catching hell back home.”
“Until we look at education as an investment instead of an expense I don’t think anything is going to change,” Hughes said. “If it cost $8,237 per child to educate for 13 years, it costs $25,240 to pay an average between welfare and incarceration. The average time for that is 28 years. If we have a child who is not reading on grade level by the third grade, no Republican or Democrat is going to dispute that there’s a 90 percent chance that they are not graduating high school. If you don’t graduate from high school, you are going to be part of the school to prison pipeline. There is a 90 percent chance that by age 30 you will be incarcerated or on government subsidy. It is far cheaper to spend $8,237 a year for 13 years than it is to spend $25,240 for 28 years. But that doesn’t have sex appeal for some reason.”
Bryan has been in the Senate since 1984. He is from Amory, and is an attorney.
“There is a funding program for education on the books,” he said. “The MAEP was developed with years and years of public hearings and was phased in over six or seven years. It was passed with bipartisan support. Governor Kirk Fordice vetoed the bill, and we got two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate to vote to override his veto. I also you all those folks were not Democrats. This funding formula devised an objective way to determine how much money the public schools need to provide education we’re requiring them to provide, and has a means of dividing up that money among the various school districts. The legislature is refusing to comply with the law. We are now something like $200 million below what the law requires school districts to get.
“That creates a problem for the Republican leadership,” he said. “The Republicans who are in charge of the legislature are not representative of most of the people who call themselves Republicans in this state. They are sure as the Dickens not representative of the people in Northeast Mississippi who consider themselves Republicans. We have not passed any good piece of legislation since I’ve been there without substantial Republican support for public education. What’s different now is that the little clique that is running everything is the radical fringe of the Republican party and they are intimidating their fellow Republicans into voting the way they want them to vote out of fear of retribution. If we had secret ballots, we’d win every vote.
“There is an attempt by the leadership in the legislature to revise this funding formula,” he said. “Now you’ve got two options. Option A is that they find it embarrassing that they are in violation of the law and underfunding public education $200 million a year. As long as this law is on the books you can tell everybody that there is an objective amount, they are below that amount, and so they are not adequately funding our public schools. That creates political problems for them. At all costs they want to get that off the books and replace it with anything that will allow them to say that whatever amount they are appropriating is the right amount. Option B is all these folks in the legislature who are promoting vouchers and voting to underfund public education suddenly had a religious experience, the skies opened, and they saw the error of their ways and suddenly developed a concern for the poor little schoolchildren of Mississippi and they are now trying to do something to help the schoolchildren. If it’s just me, I’m going with Option A.
“There has been a change in the way your legislature operates,” he said. “When I was elected decisions were made by the 174 people who had been elected. We were making the decisions, right, wrong or indifferent. Now all the decisions are being made in secret in the lieutenant governor’s office and the speaker’s office and the members of the legislature are being told that they have to hold up their little hands and vote the way they’re told to vote. They might as well turn their votes over to someone else and stay home and not have to charge people a per diem.
“The good news is that this is wearing thin,” he said. “Our colleagues are getting tired of this.”