Best fiscal condition in state history? Mississippians clearly don’t see it that way

Published 9:39 am Monday, January 23, 2023

Mississippi Today

The disconnect is stunning.

Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn often disagree, as politicians are apt to, but one item where they are on the same page is that “Mississippi is in the best fiscal condition in the state’s history.” They repeat the mantra often, and they all take credit for it.

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Indeed, if the state had a quarter for each time the governor and other political leaders said the state was in the best fiscal condition ever, then the fiscal condition would be, well, even better.

Mississippians are clearly not getting the message. According to a recent Siena College poll commissioned by Mississippi Today, a mere 4% of Mississippians described the state’s fiscal condition as “great” and only 22% as “good.” When asked to “describe the fiscal condition of the state of Mississippi right now,” 37% of poll respondents answered “fair,” 32% said “poor,” and 4% said they did not know.

The poll results are a bit perplexing considering Mississippi’s fiscal condition is, indeed, most likely the best ever. The state’s various surplus accounts total $3.9 billion or, incredibly, about half the amount of the annual state support budget appropriated by the Legislature.

“We are in a great financial position,” Gunn said recently. “…We cannot neglect or ignore the fact that conservative spending leads to this type of financial situation. We have rejected attempts to grow government for the previous many years and this has been the result of that.”

There are many reasons for the surplus, most financial experts agree, ranging from an unprecedented infusion of federal spending into the state primarily to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation generating more tax revenue, and wage growth generating additional tax revenue. In addition, the state is still benefitting from past lawsuit settlements with tobacco companies and with BP after the 2010 oil spill. Both lawsuit settlements continue to bring millions of dollars into the state.

Perhaps the disconnect between how Mississippians feel about the state’s fiscal condition and the state’s actual fiscal condition can be attributed to the notion that most people do not view the primary role of government as to build cash reserves. Normally, the role of government and politicians is to provide needed services for their constituents. Sure, a government should have adequate reserves, often called rainy day funds, but the primary role of a government is to provide services, not to hoard money.

If people see high poverty rates, poor health care outcomes, components of education lacking and poor infrastructure ranging from roads and bridges to water and sewer, they might surmise the state’s fiscal condition must not be that great. Because if it is the best in history, then politicians could fix all the problems.

But instead they hear from top state officials like Health Officer Daniel Edney, who recently sounded the alarm about 38 hospitals and about half of the state’s rural hospitals being “in danger of immediate closure or closure in the near term.” Some of those hospitals are larger regional care centers, such as Greenwood Leflore Hospital. Edney said nearly all of 111 hospitals across the state are facing financial difficulties with many areas — particularly in the Delta and some parts of southwest Mississippi — becoming “health care deserts.”

In the area of infrastructure, the federal government has had to step up to commit more than $600 million to ensure safe and reliable drinking water for Jackson after city and state officials were unable to fix the problem.

Notably, the poll found that 42% of African Americans described the state’s fiscal condition as “poor” compared to 26% of white Mississippians. The same poll found that 42% said the state is on the right track compared to 44% on the wrong track, while among African Americans 55% said the state is on the wrong track and 32% on the right track.

Could it be that more Black Mississippians see so many needs going unmet in their communities and reasonably surmise the state’s fiscal condition must not be that great?Because if the fiscal condition were great, we would have better streets, health care and drinkable water. Right?

Maybe there is not a disconnect after all.