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GOP leaders should've fulfilled promises and cut Mississippi's budget years ago

The leaders of the Mississippi Legislature, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, have submitted what many in the media are calling an "austere budget."

It's maybe austere if your definition of austerity is a 1.3 percent cut to the state's general fund budget. It's still a shade under $6 billion. The fiscal 2019 budget proposal will mark the second consecutive year that the state will cut its budget. To hear critics, it's like Reeves and Gunn are the twin Republican grinches who seek only to starve the poor while giving tax breaks to their corporate buddies.

It's a view not grounded in reality, especially when one looks at the budget cycles before 2018 and 2019.

Republicans love to talk about limited government, but how limited is Mississippi's government when state budgets have increased 25 percent between 2012 and 2017 after the GOP took charge of the Legislature? The nation's rate of inflation grew between 3 percent and 2.5 percent during that time.

It's little wonder that our state is ranked 10th nationally by Governing magazine in the number of full-time state employees per 10,000 residents. Cutting more than 2,700 open positions should be the start of a conversation on how much of a public sector does this state really require.

Growing government at more than eight times the rate of inflation isn't limited or conservative by any definition of the term. It's no different than what happens in Washington, D.C. where the morass of constant borrowing is burying the nation in a $20 trillion hole that grows every day that the GOP-controlled House and Senate have done precious little to curb.

At least the Legislature is constrained, by law, to not spend more than the revenue it receives from taxpayers.

Thanks to the Legislature's blessing, we've given millions of tax breaks to shopping mall developers to build "cultural retail attractions" when the brick and mortar retail business is on the wane. We've also given tax breaks to filmmakers in exchange for questionable benefit to the state's economy that disappear when the production companies pull up and return to the Left Coast. Millions of state dollars have been spent on questionable green projects that have sunk beneath the waves leaving taxpayers without repayment.

At least the "cultural retail attraction" and film production tax breaks have been allowed to expire by the Legislature, but the damage has been done.

There was so much said about how awful it was that the state's coffers didn't receive the predicted revenue and how Gov. Phil Bryant had to enact several series of cuts. It's not a crisis when the state's economist provided a revenue prediction that proved to be less than anticipated.

There have been positive steps. Last session, there was no last-ditch, Christmas tree bond bill festooned with lots of money for questionable projects that added it to the taxpayers' credit card. Both the governor and the Legislature agree in their 2019 budget proposals that the 98 percent rule that demands that the state's leaders only spend 98 percent of available revenue should be brought back into force, thus bolstering the state's financial reserves against another economic meltdown like the 2008 recession.

GOP leaders promised a smaller, more efficient government when they first took charge in the state Legislature and it's taken them years to accomplish that promise, albeit in a small fashion. It's just a shame that they did it only because the revenue forecast and not principle demanded it.

Steve Wilson covers state and local government for the Mississippi Independent News Service. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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