Here and There

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The politics of giving: Legislative charity bad public policy

*First appeared in the Laurel Chronicle on May 30, 2013.

“Contributions to Charity X are tax deductible.” This phrase is often part of a fundraising strategy to bolster donations to charity or non-profit organizations. It’s a good angle, you see, because it plays on something we all want – to pay fewer taxes to the government.

This scenario is the intended result of a tax policy structured to incentivize donations to charities and non-profits. It relies on and rewards individual choice – that is, individuals are free to choose which organizations to financially support and, in return, are given a tax break for their contributions.

Interestingly, a contrary practice is authorized nearly every year at the state Capitol. This practice is one that originates in the oft-overlooked “Local and Private” committees through the rubber-stamping of bills that redirect taxpayer dollars to government-preferred charities or non-profits.

For as long as I have been following legislative politics, legislators have picked winners and losers in the charity and non-profit realm. For example, the 2011 legislative session included passage of House Bill 1452, which authorized Tunica County Supervisors to contract with and/or contribute up to $450,000 of taxpayer dollars to Mid-State Opportunity, Inc., for costs associated with “youth programs, an energy assistance program for the elderly, disabled and low income and other services to the needy citizens of the county.”

I wonder if legislators who voted on this bill requested information on what the organization does, how it operates, or its record of success?

In 2009, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 3283, which authorized the Kemper County Supervisors to donate up to $5,000 to the local Boys and Girls Club. In this same session, legislators approved a bill (Senate Bill 3212) that allowed Pike County Supervisors to make “annual donations for charitable uses” of taxpayer dollars to the Salvation Army and Southwest Mississippi Christian Outreach during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 calendar years.

Aren’t residents of Kemper and Pike Counties able to contribute directly to these groups without a government pass-through?

To be fair, I don’t know a single legislator who really “champions” this type of legislation. In fact, many times legislators simply file bills at the behest of their local supervisors or city councilmen. But during a period when revenues at all levels – city, county, and state – are deflated, does it make financial sense for the government to redirect taxpayer dollars away from its core services?

More important, however, is recognizing the precedent this sets for the government’s role in financial management. Government exists to protect individual rights and freedoms. Bills that repurpose taxpayer dollars to government-preferred charities and non-profits undermine our economic freedom: the freedom to choose just how we want to spend our money.

The argument isn’t whether Mid-State Opportunity, Inc., Boys and Girls Clubs, the Salvation Army, or Southwest Mississippi Christian Outreach deserve financial support. I know many of these groups provide meaningful services in our communities. But individuals, not governments, should be the sole decision-makers when it comes to donating money to such groups. Individual contributions are already encouraged by existing tax policies.

Usurping taxpayer dollars for “charitable” purposes is bad public policy. If it’s going to continue, I propose some tax-filing flexibility. In addition to direct contributions to charities, a portion of the taxes we pay to the government should also become tax deductible since they are often used as “charitable contributions” by virtue of legislative action.

Something tells me that lawmakers would balk at this proposal which necessarily reduces individual taxes and, as a result, state revenues. So much for charity.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

House Democrats eye local positions after Republican take-over

*First appeared in The Laurel Chronicle on May 23, 2013

In November 2011, Republican officials, party leaders, and political hacks celebrated as the GOP gained control of the Mississippi House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction. This historic victory was cemented by the subsequent election of Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, as Speaker of the House – the first Republican Speaker in more than 130 years.

For those of you who don’t follow state political shuffling, the Republican take-over of the House brought with it a sea-change of power and responsibilities. For now, gone are the days when former Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, ruled the House chamber with an iron fist, squelching Republican opposition by all means necessary.

Especially during McCoy’s last term as Speaker, Republicans were the red-headed stepchildren: No Republicans were appointed to chair committees nor asked to serve on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the bicameral body tasked with developing a plan to spend your taxpayer dollars. The McCoy House provided scarce an opportunity for Republicans to pass legislation important to the GOP.

(While Speaker McCoy ran a tough House, it’s only fair to mention that he was a strong partner to Governor Haley Barbour on issues like economic development.)

With a new Republican Speaker, roles have shifted. No longer can Democrats employ the hardball tactics used during the McCoy era; the numbers simply aren’t there. But in the Republican House, Democrats aren’t entirely boxed out of major committee chairmanships (in fact, several Democrats lead prominent House committees), and the joint budget committee includes two House Democrats.

Despite the (mostly) congenial spirit of the new House majority, Democrats recognize the absolute power they once enjoyed is the process of old. The shift seems to have taken its toll on morale, with Democrat stalwarts like Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville claiming this term will be his last in the Legislature.

For what it’s worth, I have wondered if this monumental shift is the root cause of legislators looking elsewhere to further their political careers – by throwing their hats into mayoral races across the state.

Rep. George Flaggs, Jr., a Democrat from Vicksburg, recently won a tight race in that city to become its next mayor. An affable man with a knack for making deals, Rep. Flaggs’ new position means the House has lost one of its most well-known Democrat personalities.

Democrat Rep. Kelvin Buck beat out three-term Mayor André DeBerry in his effort to become the leader of Holly Springs. Similarly, Rep. Billy Broomfield defeated incumbent Mayor Aneice Liddell in the Moss Point election. He will face two independent candidates in the June general election.

Despite name recognition and strong family ties, including his dad who is the current mayor of Clarksdale, Rep. Chuck Espy lost his primary battle against former gubernatorial candidate and businessman Bill Luckett. I watched with great interest the mayoral race in Laurel, “the City Beautiful,” in which Democrat Rep. Omeria Scott got enough votes to make it to the primary run-off against sitting Councilman Johnny Magee. But Scott’s momentum wasn’t ultimately enough to edge out Councilman Magee in the May 21st election.

The House stands to lose at least three of its Democrats to mayoral positions – a collective loss of 55 years of experience and a lot of institutional knowledge. After all, a successful mayoral bid means these legislators will hang up their hat at the state capitol and move on to city hall.

It’s not unusual for politicians to seek out the “next big thing.” For some of these legislators, perhaps running for mayor is that logical next step. Perhaps they simply saw a clear path to victory in these races. Or perhaps this renewed interest in municipal politics is an indication that Democrats don’t want to play second fiddle in the Republican majority House.

It’s not surprising legislators, particularly long-serving Democrats, are eyeing other positions. It makes sense, given the mantra “out with the old; in with the new” echoing through the Capitol hallways nowadays. For many old guard Democrats (and even some Republicans), the time has come to step aside as freshmen members – mostly younger with less experience – start anew at the Legislature.

But that’s not a bad thing. Generally speaking, younger generations are open to new ideas. Their inexperience can be an asset, as they’re not entrenched in the idea of doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” Even sensitive issues like race become less divisive as younger generations (both black and white) are further removed from the sins of our past.

In some respects, a new majority in the House is having a domino effect on state politics: The Republican take-over is causing some Democrats to think twice about their continued role in the state legislature. This disenchantment is paving the way for a new class of younger, less experienced legislators – which just might slowly lead to a new kind of thinking in Jackson.

Things aren’t looking so good for the coalition of the status quo.