By George Evans
The Mississippi Legislature began its 2017 session last week. It is now time for all of us to contact our legislators and let them know our wishes. Democracy does not work well if our senators and representatives do not know what we, the electorate, want from them and what we think are the right decisions for them to make.
A significant number of bills have already been filed in both the House and Senate and many more will follow. The vast majority will die in committee and never get to the floor for a vote in the house in which they originate. Some however are very significant and will affect our state and its people in very important ways. Our representatives need to hear from us on these. If they don’t we have no right to complain when it’s all said and done.
Because of space constraints, I will bring only several to your attention and urge you to follow closely what transpires so you can play your role as adviser. Pope Francis and our bishops urge us to be involved in the public square. It is part of living the gospel, following Christ and being a disciple while building the church on earth.
Mississippi has enormous economic problems. Everyone agrees on this point but there is great difference on what to do about it. We are last or nearly so in every economic ranking from personal income to support for education, infrastructure, mental health services, child care services, etc. The list goes on and on. The legislature tells us that they do the best they can but don’t have the money to do more. There is truth in that statement, but if we don’t educate our people, spend money on our three and four year-olds, challenge our gifted students and train others for meaningful work and trades in an ever-changing work environment, we will never break out of the cycle of poverty that bedevils us year after year.
Creative solutions must be found and courage to implement brought to bear so that health care is not compromised, schools are not failing to the extent that children are left stranded in hopelessness and the child poverty rate in the state falls from an outrageous 2014 level of nearly 30 percent based on a federal poverty line of $23,850 for a family of four, breaking down to 15 percent of white children and 47 percent of African American children.
What can be done about just this one terrible fact. House Bill 8 (H8) would raise the minimum wage in Mississippi from $7.25 to $9.00 per hour. H366 would raise it to $10.00 per hour. Many states have already raised their minimum wage. If passed, either of these bills would help relieve poverty among the children of the working poor. Senate Bill 2082(S2082) would expand Medicaid health care benefits to approximately 200,000 additional persons with approximately 75 percent of the cost being paid by the federal government.
There will be serious opposition to these pending bills. In my opinion these and all the other economic problems need to be addressed for the good of the state and particularly for the poor and disadvantaged. Unless we at least face the issues and begin to grapple with solutions, we will remain stagnant.
Costs to improve funding of needed programs can be raised by tax increases. No one likes to pay more taxes, including me, and politicians run when they hear the words. At the same time we know more money is needed to do the right thing for those suffering with problems in education, child care, medical care and deadening poverty. Our state taxes are regressive (low income households pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than high income households). State sales taxes are 7 percent and apply even to groceries. Only Mississippi and Alabama apply full state sales taxes to groceries. This hurts the already poor more than anyone else. There should be some reduction to help the poor with groceries.
The fairest growth in tax revenue must be focused on the highest income earners and corporations. Contrary to this, the legislature in 2016 passed an across the board income tax cut estimated at $145,000,000 to take effect in 2018, disproportionately benefitting wealthy taxpayers. At the same time it eliminated the state’s franchise tax which eliminated another $260,000,000 in general revenue. In a state so challenged to find payments for living essentials, I would oppose any such tax cuts particularly those increasing the inequalities between rich and poor which exacerbates an existing problem.
I have touched on only several questions and problems before the Legislature. Specific information has come from the “State of Working Mississippi 2016” report by the Jesuit Social Research Institute, Loyola University New Orleans. It is an extraordinary publication I recommend to all. As we educate ourselves on the issues and communicate with our legislators by personal contact, phone calls, letters and emails, we enhance what is good for our state and its people and continue our growth of discipleship.
(George Evans is a retired pastoral minister and member of Jackson St. Richard Parish.)