State auditor crunches numbers at Rotary meeting

November 6, 2013 9:39:51 AM

Slim Smith - ssmith@cdispatch.com

 

Stacey Pickering talks in terms of numbers, stats, percentages. 

 

Of course, in his role as the state auditor -- essentially he is Mississippi's top accountant -- Pickering's affinity for reducing the world to data is understandable. 

 

During Tuesday's speaking engagement before the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Golf Club, Pickering assessed his performance on the job, a post he has held since 2008, in terms of numbers of cases successfully prosecuted and cases lost. 

 

Insisting that his department's success was the result of the excellent work of his 160-person staff, Pickering noted that the state auditor's office successfully pursued 150 cases, recovering $19 million in stolen, mishandled or misappropriated state, county and municipal funds. 

 

"We only lost three cases," Pickering told the Rotarians, "and I don't even count two of them." 

 

One of those cases, Pickering said, was a case involving the use of county funds to build a bridge on private property. 

 

"They just dismissed that case because we didn't seize the bridge," Pickering said. "I hadn't thought of that. I mean, it's not like somebody was going to just pick up the bridge and take it off somewhere." 

 

The other case, which went to trial, is even more mystifying, he said. 

 

"It involved a mayor using a city credit card," Pickering said. "We had video of the mayor using the city credit card to fill up his personal car, his wife's car and his daughter's car. We had video --can't get much better evidence than that, right?" 

 

To his dismay, the jury returned with a not-guilty verdict. Later on, the jury foreman approached Pickering to offer an explanation. 

 

"I"ll never forget it," Pickering said. "He said, 'I hope you won't think less of us for it, but we sort of expect a little corruption around here.' 

 

"Like I said, we lost three cases, but two of them don't count as far as I'm concerned." 

 

On a more serious note, Pickering touched on a variety of subjects during his visit, ranging from education funding to the outlook for the state and national economies. 

 

Pickering, 45, a Republican state legislator before becoming state auditor, said that while he supports the idea that education should be Mississippi's top priority, as auditor he is troubled by how funding needs are calculated under the state's MAEP program, a formula adopted by state law in 1997 designed to insure adequate funding for schools. Mississippi has met MAEP standards just twice since its implementation, but Pickering said the system bears some of the blame. 

 

"I look at it from a data point of view," Pickering said. "The problems I have with the formula is that the very first data point to decide funding is flawed. It's based on student attendance, but until this year there was never any uniform criteria for it. In one district, a student was counted present if he was there for one hour. In other district, a student might have to be at school until 11 in the morning. That can make a big difference when you are allocating resources. The data was faulty and, as a result, it could skew the results." 

 

Pickering also said the funding for free or reduced lunches had no accountability. 

 

"Who is responsible for making sure that the students are really qualified to receive those benefits?" Pickering asked rhetorically. "No one. There's no accountability at all." 

 

As for the state economy, Pickering said that while projected revenue should increase modestly though 2015, expenditures are out-pacing revenue. Don't expect a quick recovery, he said. 

 

On the national scene, he said that the U.S. is better prepared for economic growth than many of the countries whose economies are currently considered more sound by the International Monetary Fund. 

 

"We're 28th on that list. We're behind Slovakia, even. How does that happen?" Pickering said. "But the good news is that our population replacement rate is very high, far higher than many of those countries who are farther up on the list than we are now. What's significant about the population replacement rate is that's what determines the size of a country's middle class. In the future, we have far more potential for growth in the middle class than those other countries." 

 

Pickering noted that the growth comes not from the birth rate, which is expected to be flat, but from the infusion of immigrants. 

 

"Notice I didn't say legal immigrants," Pickering said. "I said immigrants. But that's the reality. It's different, certainly. But it's the reality and that's the biggest factor in the growth of our middle class."

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.