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Business, politics a natural partnership

As I See It

We turn this week`s editorial focus toward politics and business in Mississippi.

For the naive among us – the uninitiated, if you will – the natural relationship between business and politics might seem unlikely. Nothing could be more wrong.

How elected officials go about spending money – my money, your money – and regulating our businesses has a powerful impact on the state`s economy. After all, $3.6 billion is a mighty big chunk of change and has major implications for our economy.

All of us should carefully watch the proceedings of the Legislature but, truthfully, if we don`t have a particular bill that is of personal interest, most of us don`t tune in. Further, it seems to me that most citizens are woefully ignorant of how the legislative process works and how some are able to manipulate that system to their benefit while the rest of us sit by and watch reality television programs.

Being a legislator can be a real ego trip, and for many that`s the motivation for seeking elected office. It`s the only opportunity anyone gets to spend billions of other people`s dollars and make the recipients humble themselves and beg for their piece of the public pie. Plus, there`s lots of free food and booze since the session is one continuous party, uh, make that reception, after another, all funded by the groups who want some tax dollars.

Aside from the elected legislators, another important group is the

lobbyists. These groups are paid by special interest groups to influence legislators to look kindly on their client`s interests. And many of the lobbyists are paid royally for their ability to protect the interests of their clients.

However, before we beat the lobbyists up to harshly, we should point out that they serve a very important function. They provide legislators with valuable information about the issues under consideration that legislators need to make responsible decisions. On the whole, lobbyists are a necessary ingredient to our form of government. Unfortunately, not everyone has a lobbyist representing his or her interest.

Though most people don`t have their own lobbyist on retainer, many of us are represented by lobbyist employed by industry and trade associations. Thus, to a large extent, when the healthcare industry lobbies for improved healthcare, they are representing all of us. Similarly, the construction industry lobbied some years ago to increase the cost of permit fees to fund construction education. Special interest or general benefit to all Mississippians?

Clearly the deer hunters among us have someone pushing a change in the law that would legalize baiting deer. Whether you’re for baiting or against it, nonetheless, someone is spending time and money trying to impact the hunting laws.

Most of us influence the Legislature through supporting PACs (political action committees). There are professional PACs, trade PACs, union PACs and charitable PACs. Each member of the group contributes a little money, the money is pooled and the PAC hires a lobbyist to get the job done. We hate the influence of PACs unless they happen to be our PAC.

I have had some personal experience with the legislative process.

Decades ago, the Mississippi CPAs rose up in arms to oppose legislation that would have licensed non-certified accountants. The feeling was that licensing non-certified accountants would give them too much credibility in the public`s eye and create confusion about the qualifications of each group. Another concern, inconsequential I’m sure, was the prospect of lowering CPA fees due to the official recognition of non-certified accountants. The CPA lobby prevailed and non-certified, public accountants are not licensed by the state.

More recently, I have been privileged to assist the community colleges in trying to maintain the funding for their workforce training programs. In that role, I have appeared several times before legislative budget committees to plead our case. The committee members were very respectful and most seemed interested in what I had to say however, one member did seem to be reading a novel throughout my spellbinding presentation. Oh well, maybe I’m not as mesmerizing as I thought.

In most years, the budget committee recommended against providing the workforce training funds we needed. And, in most years, we mounted a media offensive by appearing before a dozen newspaper editorial boards around the state to take our case directly to the public. The press was very supportive and the Legislature pretty much gave us the funds we needed to keep the program going. It`s regrettable that several of us volunteers had to expend hundreds of gallons of gasoline and lots of tire rubber to get our message across, but that`s how it works sometimes.

As an aside, now everybody`s talking about workforce training and it`s the topic du jour for many news media around the state. I’m glad to see that we are now beginning to understand the tremendous need to train and retrain our workforce for participation in the ever-changing economy.

Spending the state`s money is a big responsibility for the Legislature. Funds are tight this year because of colossal mismanagement over the past few years. Consistently, the Legislature has budgeted more money than we had available and that has created a mess. The situation is not unlike the predicament we find ourselves in personally when we let our credit cards get away from us.

Fear of budget cuts and the attendant hysteria coming from all state agencies is in the air. To some extent, the fear is justified. Prior Legislatures have committed future dollars to such an extent that the current Legislature doesn`t have much wiggle room to deal with lower-than-expected tax collections. Shame, shame.

Paying the cost of enticing Nissan to our state and the multi-year teacher pay raise package are two major examples of committing future dollars in exchange for political pay dirt today. In my judgement, both were good for the state, but both have to be funded. Reality is, the state will collect more taxes this year than last year and essential public services will be funded and the state will stay in business. Ain`t government a fun game!

Thought for the Moment – There is nothing we cannot live down, rise above, and overcome. – Poet and journalist Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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