Greg Snowden: Tax hike off limits'

By By Buddy Bynum/The Meridian Star
April 16, 2001
With a budget crippled by a downturn in the state economy, one revenue-raising possibility is off limits to State Rep. Greg Snowden.
In times of relative riches, former Gov. Kirk Fordice's calls for tax cuts were met with stony silence in the legislative chambers. Now, in times of budget stress, Snowden feels "it would be unconscionable to go to taxpayers and say we need more money."
Constraints
Even under severe financial constraints imposed after revenue collections fell well short of projections, the Legislature opted to fund the first year of a proposed five-year cycle of teacher pay raises a priority of Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. A vote was required after the state economy failed to achieve 5 percent growth and came as severe cuts were made in other budget categories.
The 2 percent pay hike for teachers will cost about $25 million during fiscal year 2002, which begins July 1. But Snowden said he is most concerned that the second year of the plan, a 6 percent raise, would cost an additional $65 million and, given current revenue collections, the money will not automatically be available.
As teacher pay is being raised, some other state employees have salaries so low they qualify for food stamps, Snowden said. In mental health offices, unfilled vacancies are crimping service delivery.
Education consumes about 58 percent of the state's $3.7 billion budget, which, under the state constitution, must be balanced.
Whispers
The possibility of a tax increase to bring in more dollars is being whispered in some quarters, but, politically, Snowden said the prospect was unacceptable.
Legislators wrestled with the budget in a major confrontation with Musgrove, who once headed the Legislative Budget Committee during his term as lieutenant governor. In the waning days of the 2001 session, lawmakers overrode more than 40 Musgrove vetoes.
At issue was whether the Legislature would accept the governor's low-growth projections, and cut another $100 million out of the budget, or go ahead with their own projections and await likely budget cuts later this year. If revenue collections fail to improve, Musgrove, as chief executive, would have to make the cuts himself.
In Snowden's view, "that's part of the governor's job. He's the state's chief executive and there are things he can do in the executive sense to control spending in the executive agencies."
Power play
Late session debate degenerated into a "political argument," Snowden said, as Musgrove maintained he had not been included in the budget-making process. Traditionally, and in fact, budget power is reserved for the Legislature. Snowden, in the second year of a four-year term, said the process was not going to change "just because Ronnie Musgrove is governor.
Mississippi's governor, some say, is weak because the Legislature reserves so much power for itself. But, Snowden said, Musgrove is strong in other areas, such as being the point man for economic development.
Local cooperation
Closer to home, Snowden said members of the Lauderdale County delegation worked well together in the 2001 session.
Among the successes, he points to a half million dollar appropriation for the Hope for Children Foundation and designation of Meridian as the site for a proposed Southern Arts and Entertainment Center.
Hope for Children is expected to transform the former Masonic Home into a home for abused and neglected children. The arts and entertainment center proposed for Bonita Lakes could give Meridian an economic boost by expanding state cultural and entertainment influences.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, extension 3213, or e-mail him at bbynum@themeridianstar.com.

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