Some would call it The Mississippi Paradox. One the one hand, we say we want the federal government off our backs, yet on the other we say want more dollars coming to Mississippi from Washington. The presidential election will dramatically have an effect on both these statements.
One of the first civic lessons we learn about our unique form of American Government is that we have a federal system. This simply means that government in this country is divided among three layers with each having certain powers and responsibilities that the other levels do not have. The national government and the state governments are addressed in the United States Constitution while the structure and roles of local governments are left largely to the states themselves.
It is often easy to lose track of what level of government is delivering a service or issuing a regulation. Mississippians, like citizens of all states in our federal union, are headed toward noticeable shifts in the tectonic plates of this multi-layered governmental taxing, spending and service delivery system. It was veteran commentator Tom Brokaw who on NBC’s “Meet the Press” cut through the euphoria and partisan sniping surrounding the Presidential race to remind us all that a series of potentially apocalyptic financial calamities await the winner if they are not solved.
The looming major efforts to deal with the record deficits in the federal budget place that level of government on a collision course with the states and local governments. Any time one of the aspirants for the White House announces proudly that immediately upon taking the oath of office they will commence turning programs over to the states he is not giving the states and localities a present, but rather he is putting them on notice that big dilemmas are coming their way. Consequently, appropriations and ways and means types in Mississippi’s and other states’ legislatures will never be as busy making crucial decisions as they will be during the next couple of years.
As far as the 2012 election itself is concerned, Mississippi is being reduced in effect to mere spectator status. That the state will vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Romney/Ryan ticket is virtually a foregone conclusion. Despite that inevitability, no state in the Union has more at stake in the 2012 election than does Mississippi.
Whether Mississippians wish to own up to the situation or not, Mississippi remains in a constant contest along with the likes of New Mexico and West Virginia to see which state is the largest net gainer of dollars from the federal government per the number of dollars sent from Mississippi to Washington. Depending on which researcher is doing the counting, somewhere between $2 and $3 flow to Mississippi from the federal government for every dollar sent north from the state.
Now, neither all of this, nor even the majority of these federal funds, go to social programs for lower-income people. These federal dollars go for everything from highways to education to agricultural commodity programs, and yes, Medicaid and Medicare. For example, literally millions of federal dollars for Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans enable lower- and middle-income Mississippians to attend community colleges, universities and trade schools within the state.
What, might the reader ask, does this long-term situation have to do with the 2012 election? Mr. Brokaw’s comment was referring to the fact that the nation is wrestling with a monumental $16-trillion deficit and the related skyrocketing national debt. Regardless of who is elected, the deficit demands attention. Such attention will invariably include major and noticeable cuts in federal programs.
As of now, the difference between the Republican Party ticket and the Democrats rests with the extremes of measures to be taken to deal with the recession-driven budget shortfall.
The Democrats favor a combination of new revenues and program cuts that will in combination make a significant dent in the deficit. Republican Romney seeks to hold revenues neutral while enacting major and permanent cuts in federal programs. His mantra-like promise from the election stump is to turn many of the programs currently funded by federal dollars over to the states where they can choose to continue them or end them altogether.
The dilemma for Mississippi is that programs that, in effect, are being two-thirds funded by federal dollars would be 100 percent funded from state and/or local resources or discontinued. An excellent recent study by the Mississippi Economic Policy Center sheds a bright light on the Mississippi budget. One revealing finding in this report titled “The Nuts and Bolts of the Mississippi Budget: A Taxpayer’s Guide to the Mississippi Budget,” is that of the total appropriations in the Mississippi budget 45 percent of the revenues come from the federal government. This, by the way, is far and away the largest revenue source to fund Mississippi programs.
With demand growing to cure what ails education, to address deteriorating roads, bridges and water systems and to meet a rapidly growing requirement for workforce development the pressure is poised to shift to Mississippians to meet those and many other currently federally-funded demands. Regardless of who wins the presidency, if election year promises are followed through with Mississippi, as the state most dependent on federal programs, it stands to lose the most of any others when they disappear.
Mississippians are indeed facing some big decisions when we succeed in “getting the federal government off of our backs.” The phrase “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind.