March 20, 2014 10:12:53 AM
The rise of the Internet is eroding our expectations of privacy. Like a lobster in a big stove pot of water, we are about to get boiled.
We all know the National Security Agency tracks our phone calls, emails and Internet use. They do it in the name of terrorism prevention and many of us accept that.
Madison County Tax Assessor Gerald Barber is doing it in the name of homestead exemption fraud prevention. A 9-0 decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court backs him up.
Barber wants to get customer information from Entergy for two zip codes in Madison. He believes the utility bill information will help him catch homeowners who are improperly claiming homestead exemption. Barber believes he can save several hundred thousand dollars in fraud this way.
An irate attorney called me last week to express his profound displeasure with this ruling. In his opinion, this violates the Fourth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.
This attorney believes Entergy would win in federal court, but won't go to the expense to fight the subpoena.
"The Supreme Court justices have sold out their constituents' constitutional rights to ensure their re-election," the attorney said, adding this is a good reason judges should be appointed and not elected.
The issue here is probable cause. Before the government can subpoena your personal records, the government is supposed to have some valid grounds for believing you are violating a law.
But Barber's subpoena is a fishing expedition. He wants everyone's records in zip codes 39110 and 39046.
Barber tried to get the Legislature to give him subpoena power, but failed. Then he got a Madison County grand jury to subpoena the records on behalf of the tax assessor's office.
Opinion author judge Jim Kitchens wrote: The grand jury requested information which potentially was relevant to a criminal investigation, and Entergy failed to adduce sufficient evidence to show that the subpoena was being used to acquire information for an unauthorized civil purpose. Although there existed a possibility, perhaps a strong one, that the evidence thus acquired might be used for a collateral purpose, the fact that the subject matter of the subpoena carried with it the potential for ferreting out criminal activity for which the grand jury could have returned indictments ends the discussion.
Efficiency vs. politics
It's hard to argue with the logic of Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson. Blount wants the state Department of Finance and Administration to control leases for state offices. Currently, each agency controls its own leases for office space.
This has created waste, as agencies naturally want to spend more money for bigger offices. A 2013 report by the Else School of Management at Millsaps College shows the state spending $312 per square feet for office space. This is higher than the federal government, which recommends $213.
It really takes some work to outspend the federal government. The waste amounts to $5 million a year.
Blount's bill also recommends the centralization of state office building in downtown Jackson, which makes sense. Last year, Blount's bill passed the state Senate with only one nay vote but died in a House committee.
It is no secret House Speaker Philip Gunn is against Blount's bill because he wants the Department of Revenue offices to remain in his home district of Clinton.
Gunn's personal wishes should not cost taxpayers $5 million a year.
Gov. Phil Bryant's standard stump speech quotes CNN and Site Selection magazine as evidence of job growth in Mississippi. Unfortunately, other media sources rank Mississippi on the bottom. The Christian Science Monitor ranked Mississippi tied for fifth from the bottom in job growth.
Federal statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are considered the best source. The BLS stats show only 52 percent of Mississippians are working, the second lowest in the nation after West Virginia. North Dakota has the highest with 69.4 percent.
Over the last year, BLS shows a mixed bag for Mississippi. BLS has two surveys - an employer survey and a worker survey. The employer survey shows Mississippi employment up 18,900 jobs. The worker survey shows employment down 65,700. Details:
Historically, BLS shows 52,000 fewer people employed than 10 years ago. The number of Mississippians employed today is the same as 20 years ago.
That's about the time Mississippi started handing out special massive tax breaks to recruit industries to come to Mississippi. Crony capitalism doesn't have a great track record. When you allow the Legislature to buy and sell, the first thing that gets bought is the Legislature.
These tax breaks are now totaling billions, eroding our tax base and undermining our schools, roads and infrastructure. There is no free lunch. All that money given to a handful of big companies comes out of the pockets of the small Mississippi businesses and workers that make up 95 percent of our workforce.
Meanwhile, our new Republican state leadership is turning up its nose at one billion dollars in Medicaid expansion money, paid 100 percent by the federal government. The billion would allow health coverage for 250,000 Mississippians making less than $15,000 a year.
These people already getting serviced in emergency rooms. Hospitals, now facing huge cuts in existing federal programs to help hospitals treat uninsured patients, will have to raise private insurance rates to make up for this billion-a-year loss. Hospitals will also cut back, further hurting a fragile Mississippi economy. Either way, Mississippi loses.
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