- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Fitch Ratings has downgraded Mississippi’s credit rating on $4 billion in outstanding debt, and Moody’s Investor Services has lowered the state’s credit outlook to negative, moves that could cost taxpayers when the state refinances debt or borrows money.

The Clarion-Ledger (https://on.thec-l.com/2aIC6Ye ) reports Fitch downgraded Mississippi’s rating on the outstanding general obligation bonds from AA+ to AA, and lowered its Long-term Issuer Default Rating from AA+ to AA. It also lowered the rating to AA- on more than $200 million in bonds issued for state Department of Corrections’ projects set for sale last month.

Moody’s, after issuing a warning in July, lowered the state’s credit outlook to “negative,” but left its general obligation bond rating at Aa2.

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch said the moves should come as no surprise after the Moody’s July report warning.

“Credit rating downgrades, even small ones, cost taxpayers money, and we need to address this seriously and quickly,” Fitch said. “Mississippi can get back on the right path, but we must stick tight by our budgeting laws. We must contain spending. We must stop putting so much on the taxpayers’ credit card in bond bills. We must stop relying on one-time money to fill budget holes.”

Both agencies noted Mississippi having to dip into its “rainy day fund” to balance the fiscal 2016 budget and routinely sidestepping its “2 percent set-aside” rule that is supposed to prevent lawmakers from spending more than 98 percent of general fund revenue when it sets a budget.

Both also noted the state’s debt, with Fitch Ratings calling the state’s liabilities “well above average for a U.S. state.” The agency noted the state is starting fiscal 2017 with potentially a more than $56 million deficit because of what legislative leaders called a staff accounting error.

Moody’s said its negative outlook “reflects ongoing weakness and below-average economic growth.” In July, it said the state’s emergency reserves have dropped from 6.7 percent of revenue to 1.4 percent in just two years and “on top of revenue underperformance, Mississippi just passed a record $415 million tax cut to be phased in over 12 years.”

Gov. Phil Bryant was forced to draw about $110 million from the rainy day fund to balance the fiscal 2016 budget that ended in July.

In a statement Friday, Bryant said “government spending must be curtailed and our reserves must be grown.”

“In the last four years, Mississippi’s budget has increased 24 percent, a rate five times higher than inflation,” Bryant said. “That cannot continue. Today’s action by Moody’s proves that kind of increase in spending over a short period of time is unsustainable, and I hope it serves as a wake-up call for those whose only solution to every problem is to spend more money on it.”

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

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