At this time last year, Phil Bryant was cruising toward re-election, while truck driver Robert Gray was still six weeks from shocking the world by winning the Democratic primary without even voting for himself. Bryant, of course, demolished Gray in the general election.
So maybe it seems too soon to be talking about 2019. But word began to trickle out following the Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson-Hamer dinner in May that the attorney general, the last heavyweight Democratic politician in Mississippi, was finally going to take a shot at the governor’s mansion. And Hood’s actions since then — wading into the midst of the state’s budget difficulties — bear that out.
Talking to reporters last week, Hood expressed opposition to corporate tax cuts and called for more spending on roads and bridges, subjects pretty far afield from the usual public utterances of the Chickasaw County prosecutor.
Reeves’ calling card, since winning election as state treasurer before turning 30, has been skill as a money manager. The current budget problems cut against that strength. Bolstered by a recovery in state revenues following the 2009 recession, Republican leaders have often boasted that they had stopped spending one-time money. But the budget that ends Thursday has been pasted together using lawsuit settlements that Hood won and state savings, and even then will likely end tens of millions short.
Then lawmakers tried to sweep $187 million that had been in special accounts into the general budget for the 2017 year, which begins July 1. But Hood issued legal opinions that say $72 million of that money is legally classified as trust funds, meaning an agency is just holding it for someone else. Hood said lawmakers could come back and amend the individual trust fund laws to legally take the money, but barring such a move, he says they can’t lay hands on it.
“If they go on and sweep it, we may have to go in and challenge that authority,” Hood said, obliquely threatening a lawsuit.
The overall budget gap is wider than $72 million. There’s also a $56 million miscalculation adding to the 2017 shortfall, Medicaid and some other mandatory expenses are underfunded, and it’s unclear how the messy end to 2016’s budget might ripple into 2017. Lawmakers could easily be looking at $250 million deficit in 2017 if revenue collections don’t improve or spending isn’t cut.
Hood’s blaming the gap on $350 million in corporate tax relief given by lawmakers from 2012 to 2015, saying lawmakers grabbed the special fund money to cover up what they’d done.
Reeves doubled down on tax cuts, pushing a $415 million, multiyear tax reduction through the Legislature that includes eliminating Mississippi’s $260-million-a-year corporate franchise tax.
When someone else challenges Reeves, he tends to strike back, both verbally and in legislation. He seemed to recognize Hood as a threat last week, when he hurled the biggest insult a Mississippi Republican could hurl at a Democrat — linking him to President Barack Obama. Reeves also accused Hood of issuing a self-serving legal opinion to hold onto trust fund money controlled by his office.
“Obama’s attorney general in Mississippi takes the same approach that Obama’s attorney general in Washington takes: Ignore the law if it doesn’t meet your political views,” Reeves said in a statement. “The attorney general wants to double dip his spending, ignores the need for taxpayers’ accountability and transparency and has instructed bureaucrats to ignore the law.”
Next stop, speeches at the Neshoba County Fair. It will be hot.
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