Section One: Under The Weather: Symptoms Of Our Sickness

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“The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities.” ~ Alan Bloom

In late March 2017 Governor Phil Bryant was forced by law to make emergency spending cuts to state agency budgets for the fifth time in just over a year. The cuts by the governor didn’t come as a great surprise to anyone. Monthly reports of the state’s revenue haul falling short of established projections for FY 2017 had occurred so frequently that state news editors were in danger of having to begin recycling headlines.

In fact, the likelihood of this fifth round of spending reductions had been floated to some of the Mississippi Capitol press corps when the governor announced the fourth round of cuts a month earlier in late February. Whether the governor’s office felt motivated to get ahead of the story and soften the political impact, or gauge reaction to the next round of cuts and the agencies included — or if it was instead a brief apolitical moment of doubt by bewildered staffers — is unclear. Maybe it was a combination of all of these factors, and more. Political footing has a way of unexpectedly shifting under an administration’s feet and reminding that individual consumers actions and reactions are not entirely predictable. Whatever the reasons for unease, a different approach toward navigating the politics of Mississippi’s economic circumstances was under consideration by Governor Bryant’s office.

Prior government reform proposals such as decommissioning of licensure boards, and more stringent requirements for agency and sub-agency transparency had already faded from the usually well-choreographed public discussion. The overall sense was one of reducing throttle. But by 2017 the slow drift of the ship of state was evident from other indicators, as well. It took Governor Bryant only 6 months in 2016 of seeing missed revenue projections to begin changing his tune on a state lottery. Prior to this, he had been crystal clear, as all of his predecessors had been before him going back to the mid 90’s, regarding a lottery.

Bryant’s statements left no doubt that a lottery had exactly a snowballs chance in hell of making it past his veto pen. As late as January of 2016, Bryant called the lottery a “silly notion”. But by Summer’s end he began telling reporters he was “open to a general discussion regarding a statewide lottery.” 

In April 2017 the Mississippi Department of Revenue (DOR), more closely aligned with the governors office following Bryant’s appointment of State Rep. Herb Frierson as director, was happily reporting to the media that the agency’s first look at recently updated numbers showed the long running trend of tax revenue underperforming projections was finally coming to an end. This was a welcomed relief for many in the executive branch of state government.

The Legislative Budget Office (LBO) report of revenue numbers a few days later—accounting for additional money raised by the Department of Finance and Administration—updated its projections to show the positive change in collected revenue.

A report of the state economy’s 2016 performance to that point was then issued the following month of April by the University Research Service showing the state economy during prior months of revenue shortfall had been, in fact, plodding slowly along, losing some ground here and picking up steam there. It wasn’t good news nor extremely bad news. It did, however, add more variables to provide evidence that the sky wasn’t falling.

The URC April 2017 report’s main focus was on individual Mississippians income gains in 2016, highlighting an increase of 3.2-percent over the previous year. This put the state slightly below the national average of 3.6-percent and in the second tier of all states with respect to the measurement of personal income.

While certainly not news that would expect to earn an excited reaction, it was nonetheless a noteworthy positive measurement for a state frequently on the bottom of most lists of economic productivity. It was an especially positive development in light of repeated emergency spending cuts to state agency budgets by the governor following 14 straight months of poor revenue-to-projection performance.

It was just what the governor, and the beleaguered Department of Revenue, facing criticism for chasing after a sales tax of online purchases, needed to relieve the slowly building political pressure.

Purchasing a lottery ticket in April 2017, had they been available, would have been a good gamble for Governor Bryant.

The uptick in revenue collections came just in time to keep the Mississippi Legislature from jumping into the fray, and it tamped down the growing dissent by Democrats to repeal tax cuts from the prior legislative session.

It was perfect timing–just what the doctor . . .

CLICK FOR NEXT: Chapter 1. Playing The Numbers