December 29, 2017 9:58:52 AM
This weekend, we say goodbye to 2017, a significant year in Mississippi since this was the year we observed our state's bi-centennial. The state was admitted as the nation's 20th state on Dec. 10, 1817.
Over the past month, much has been written about that 200 years, and to acknowledge that our state's history hasn't always been pretty is something few reasonable people will debate. Even so, as we have reflected, we have been astonished to note the long list of exceptional Mississippians who have won for their native state world-wide acclaim in music, art, entertainment and athletics.
What you may not have noticed is that almost all of these wonderfully talented people have something in common: They were, with few exceptions, regular people -- many of them poor people. They rose to prominence on their own remarkable merits, unaided by the advantages of position or privilege. Mississippi may claim them, but there is little evidence that the state did anything tangible to help them.
It makes their accomplishments all the more worthy of our praise.
Ask the typical Mississippian to list the great men and women of our state's history and what you will likely find missing are statesmen, politicians, leaders, visionaries. Those who rose to power in our state appear to have done next to nothing with that power, at least not anything we can point to with pride.
Should we be surprised then, that our state still languishes near the bottom in health, education, income?
With few exceptions, those in power in Mississippi have served their own narrow political interests while ignoring, and in many cases exacerbating, the difficulties regular Mississippians face.
On Tuesday, the Mississippi legislature will open its 2018 session at a time when our state face serious problems that should command their attention.
Our state's roads and bridges are in a serious state of neglect. It is estimated that it will take $350 billion to put our transportation infrastructure in good working order.
Likewise, our state's educational system is in a state of crisis as the legislature continues to fail to find a funding formula that will provide our children with even an "adequate" education.
State revenue continues to decline even at a time when the nation's economy is in the midst of a long, steady recovery. Each year, revenue falls below projections and Gov. Phil Bryant slashes funding for state agencies to balance the budget.
Not surprisingly, our state is losing population, especially college-educated young people, the people we can least afford to lose.
It does not require an economist to realize what must be done: To address these problems, we must raise revenue. One way or another, taxes will have to be raised to meet these needs. What remains to be determined -- what the legislature will grapple with beginning Tuesday -- is what form those tax increases will take. A state lottery -- essentially a self-imposed tax -- will get some attention. There is talk of raising the gasoline tax for the first time in more than 20 years to help fund the long-ignored road/bridges issue.
The buzz about education funding is that the state will not adopt a funding formula, but will provide money for schools based on what's available on a year-to-year basis. That idea puts local school administrators in an almost impossible position: If you don't know how much money you are receiving, you have no idea how many teachers you can afford, no idea what programs can be sustained or have to be eliminated. Most likely, raises in local taxes will be required to fill those funding gaps.
As our state's legitimate needs continue to require more than our revenue can provide, raising taxes is the only workable solution.
There are only two possible outcomes: Either taxes/revenue must increase or the problems will go unaddressed, which means we'll find our state in even worse condition this time next year.
So it's likely that taxes are going to go up for regular Mississippians.
What is also certain is that big corporations will not be required to bear their rightful burden of those taxes. This year, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will see the $280 million tax cut he pushed through the legislature two years ago go into effect, revenue the state could simply not afford to give up.
Some things never change.
Mississippi will continue to produce musicians, artists, writers and athletes.
What it won't produce are leaders who have the courage and vision to improve the lives of average Mississippians.
We have 200 years of history to affirm that prediction.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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