- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

Jan. 6

Greenwood (Mississippi) Commonwealth on lawmakers facing education tussle:

As the Mississippi Legislature begins today its 2015 session, education funding is expected to be one of the prime topics of discussion and debate.

This year includes a couple of new twists.

For starters, there is the lawsuit filed by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove on behalf of 21 school districts, which are asking for the state to make up for shortfalls in their funding over the past six years and to meet its obligations to all of the school districts going forward. The argument is simple:

It says that the Legislature voluntarily committed itself several years ago to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program that Musgrove helped develop in 1997 while he was lieutenant governor, and that it needs to follow its own law.

In addition, following a successful petition drive by a proeducation group, voters will be asked to decide in November - at the same time they are voting on lawmakers and other state officeholders - whether to mandate that the state fulfill the MAEP financial commitment. Although the intent of the referendum is much the same as that of the lawsuit, the difference is there’s no cut in the ballot initiative for Musgrove and his legal team.

Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican leadership in the Legislature don’t like either the lawsuit or the initiative. They are contemplating several ways to respond - critics would describe it as “mucking up the works.” One thing they could do is change the MAEP law to make it clear that full funding - something that has only happened twice since the formula was adopted - is discretionary. Or they could revise the formula downward to make it closer to what they have been appropriating. And, concurrently or alternatively, they could offer a competing ballot proposal for voters to consider in November on education funding.

There is going to be a lot of jockeying and rhetoric coming from all sides.

Republicans will say their commitment to teacher pay raises - the second installment of which is due to be funded this year - is evidence that they are willing to spend more money on education.

Democrats and many school districts will point to the millions of dollars they’ve been shortchanged, which have caused not just cutbacks in staffing but local tax increases.

One thing GOP lawmakers cannot reasonably claim is the state cannot afford to put more money into public schools. During the Great Recession, that was true. But the economy and tax collections are picking up, and the state’s rainy day fund is flush. So, it’s not a question of having extra money but where to put it.

There are, of course, lots of competing interests for the extra cash - many of them worthy - including within education itself. Fouryear and twoyear colleges have also been pinched on state funding, causing them to up tuition to make up for shortage. Maintenance has been deferred so long on state roads, highways and bridges that the situation is becoming critical. Medicaid enrollments are up, even without the state expanding the program to cover the working poor. And Bryant wants to reduce the pool of extra money by instead giving low and moderate wage earners a tax cut.

What lawmakers face this year - as they do most years - is setting priorities. They are asked to weigh the competing interests and decide which demand the most attention and public money. It’s not an easy job, but it’s one they asked for.




Jan. 6

Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo, Mississippi, on contract probes:

The beginning of the 2015 legislative session finds many members divided on important issues, but it’s reasonable to think that bipartisan majorities in both chambers will form fairly early about reform in contract law to restrict or prohibit contract approval by only one administrative-level official.

The prison bribery scandal that has deposed former long-term Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has angered Democrats and Republicans alike, in part because Epps seemed to be a survivor who could walk the tightrope of concerns about Mississippi’s prison system, inmate population and soaring costs.

Allegations center on kickbacks Epps is believed to have accepted in a scheme involving no-bid contracts, empowered by his sole approval and alleged participation by a former Rankin County legislator.

Gov. Phil Bryant has appointed a special investigative panel to make reform recommendations, and he has said he will work with State Auditor Stacey Pickering on the problem.

However, it is alleged Pickering may have his own legal problems involving state contracts.

In 2010, Pickering’s agency spokeswoman, Lisa Shoemaker, left her job to work on Steven Palazzo’s first (successful) campaign for Congress. Pickering, instead of hiring someone to replace Shoemaker, who was making about $70,000 a year, hired Shoemaker under a no-bid contract at $60 an hour, the Clarion-Ledger has reported. The initial contract was capped at $61,395 for nine months, but the Clarion-Ledger reported that in July 2011, Pickering approved a new contract for up to $88,000 with Southern Strategies, a company Shoemaker apparently created, for the same services.

In July 2012, it’s reported that Pickering approved another contract with Southern Strategies for up to $176,000 for Shoemaker to continue serving as the state auditor’s spokeswoman and press officer.

Pickering has said the contract ended when Shoemaker took a job as director of the Mississippi Cable Telecommunications Association in December 2013.

The Pickering-Palazzo-Shoemaker web looks suspicious, although suspicion is a long way from formal charges of illegality.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke, a Republican from Greenwood, has questioned the state’s “revolving door” practice of employees leaving - particularly those who retire - then coming back as contract workers. It sounds downright congressional and Washingtonian in its coziness.

There’s no better time than an election year to look in full daylight at how all incumbents have handled the public’s money, especially when the good buddy system seems to have been the chief recommendation for some of the lucrative business.




Jan. 6

Sun Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi, on hospital pensions:

The Singing River Health System in Jackson County does not operate in a vacuum. Even though publicly owned, it must stay competitive in the delivery of health care services. It must cope with public policy concerning health care, whether that policy originates in Jackson or Washington. It must deal with economic cycles and make adjustments and accommodations to ensure financial stability and sustainability.

The same is true for Memorial Hospital in Gulfport.

But in recent years, these two large health care providers have taken strikingly different approaches to their finances.

During the tenure of former CEO Chris Anderson, SRHS stopped making contributions to its employees’ pension plan. An aggressive campaign to expand and aggrandize SRHS facilities has left the system more than $100 million in debt. And for reasons yet to be explained, SRHS carried $88 million in uncollectible debt on its books as an asset.

These actions have left SRHS in a financial crisis and have left employees and retirees fearful of their future.

In stark contrast, Memorial Hospital faced similar difficulties with its pension plan. But instead of betraying the trust of its employees, Memorial’s administration informed the staff that the pension plan had reached a point that was “not sustainable” and took action “to find a way of controlling our future costs.”

It was the responsible thing to do, and emulated employers across the nation who had to make hard but necessary choices in the best interests of both management and workers and, quite often, shareholders and bondholders.

SRHS shirked that duty.

Its management merely postponed disaster rather than trying to mitigate it.

Its overseers, whether the Board of Trustees or the Jackson County Board of Supervisors, either ignored or did not fully explore the financial condition of the public asset entrusted to their care.

There is far too much mystery about what has happened at SRHS, and we see no way for that mystery to be solved without Chris Anderson himself coming forward to give a full and public account of his actions while at SRHS.



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