JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi lawmakers are demonstrating that in public policy, you are what you read — or what you hear.
Groups appointed by the Republican leadership have been meeting in recent weeks to discuss budgets and taxes. The groups are bipartisan but mostly Republican, reflecting the conservative GOP supermajorities in the state House and Senate. They have heard twice from an economist with the Tax Foundation and once from representatives of the Reason Foundation, two national think tanks that advocate smaller government.
As the budget groups gathered on the second floor of the Capitol one day last week, the House and Senate Democratic caucuses held their own hearing on the first floor. Though in the same building, the two clusters of lawmakers were miles apart in focus and ideology. Their differences are likely to develop into widely divergent policy proposals, and partisan clashes, during the 2017 legislative session.
Democrats were briefed on “State of Working Mississippi 2016,” published in September by the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans. The report examines a wide range of statistics about employment and wages in a state that persistently ranks among the poorest in the nation.
“The slow and uneven recovery from the Great Recession combined with growing income inequality has created an economic environment in Mississippi in which working families cannot afford basic necessities, let alone save for retirement or pay for their children to attend college,” the report says. “What’s more, the state’s increasingly inequitable system of taxation places a disproportionate burden on low and middle-income families, while tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals and corporations have … left the state without adequate revenue for critical public service and infrastructure, including public schools and hospitals.”
That analysis of the tax system contrasts with one offered by Nicole Kaeding, a Tax Foundation economist. During a Sept. 1 presentation to the Republican-led groups examining money matters, Kaeding said Mississippi could generate revenue by eliminating tax exemptions on goods such as prescription drugs or services such as dog grooming.
Legislators gave Kaeding a round of applause at the end of the meeting, with Republican leaders saying she reaffirmed belief that cutting taxes on businesses will spur economic growth.
The Loyola report recommends a stronger role for state government, including two proposals that have not gained traction in Mississippi and are unlikely to do so anytime soon: Expanding Medicaid to cover more people who have low-paying jobs that don’t offer benefits, and setting a state minimum wage that’s higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour.
Mississippi is a right-to-work state, and any talk of a state minimum wage is dead on arrival in a Legislature where business interests hold considerably more sway than unions.
The state’s three top Republicans — Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn — have opposed the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. The law gives states the option to expand Medicaid to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $16,400 for a single adult or $33,500 for a family of four.
Medicaid is paid with state and federal dollars. Mississippi is among the 19 states that have rejected Medicaid expansion, with Bryant, Reeves and Gunn saying the state can’t afford to put more people on the program, even with the federal government paying most of the tab.
The Loyola report makes an economic argument for Medicaid expansion: “Persons with health insurance have better health outcomes, and healthier people are more productive and live longer.”
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
An AP news analysis