Every year, Mississippi governors go through the exercise of proposing a state budget, and every year it is mostly ignored by the Legislature, which controls the ultimate power of the purse strings.
Thus, the presentation of a governor’s proposed budget has become more of an opportunity for the state’s chief executive to present a preview of his legislative agenda for the coming year — and to make political points — than it is a deep dive into balancing expected income with proposed expenditures.
Tate Reeves had several ideas in mind when he released his spending recommendations this past week.
He still wants to eliminate the personal income tax. He wants to give schoolteachers annual pay raises of at least $1,000 for the next three years. And he wants to ban something that doesn’t appear to exist in Mississippi — the teaching of critical race theory in the public schools, one of the latest GOP diversions from more serious issues.
There were also a couple of proposals Reeves made that may not have gotten as much attention but are locally noteworthy: setting up a matching grant program for water and sewer upgrades, and cleaning up Mississippi’s notoriously bloated voter rolls.
Reeves said he would like the Legislature to take a $100 million slice from the $1.8 billion Mississippi is receiving from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan and create the grant program for water infrastructure.
The idea for such a grant program was floated earlier this year by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann.
It’s a great idea, although $100 million is nowhere nearly enough. It’s estimated that 13% of Mississippians have no public water service but are on private wells. There are nine counties in which at least 25% of households get their water from a private well.
Even those who have public service may have crumbling or lead-sloughing pipes that create a health hazard. Jackson is the prime example of a water system in total collapse, with estimates ranging as high as $1 billion to bring it up to snuff.
Local and state governments in Mississippi have been allocated $2.7 billion combined in American Rescue Plan funds, a large portion of which could be spent on water and sewer infrastructure upgrades if officials so chose. The state is expected to receive another $429 million for water and sewer improvements from the massive infrastructure package recently enacted by Congress.
Mississippi has the opportunity, if state and local governments pool their federal allocations and target their spending wisely, to dramatically improve in large parts of this state how drinking water is delivered to homes and how wastewater is flushed away from them.
Another major focus of all of this infrastructure spending — expanding high-speed internet access — is vitally important, too. But it would be pointless to bring 21st century communications abilities to all parts of Mississippi while leaving some of them with 19th century water service.
Reeves is more likely to be criticized for proposing that Mississippi make it easier to clean up the state’s voter rolls. It’s going to be seen as playing into the debunked claim that voter fraud on a grand scale stole the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump.
That suspect motivation aside, Mississippi does have a longtime problem with bloated voter rolls. Last year, Secretary of State Michael Watson reported that seven counties, including Leflore, had more registered voters than residents of voting age. That’s because election officials are either not being vigilant about purging the names of those who have died or moved, or they are intimidated from doing so.
Reeves would like to require the counties to validate what’s on their poll books by sending every registered voter a confirmation notice. Those who fail to respond, update voter registration information or vote at least once during four consecutive years would be taken off the poll books, according to the governor’s proposal.
If they showed up to vote after having their name purged, they presumably would be allowed to cast an affidavit ballot and later provide proof that they are legal residents in the precinct at which they voted and have their name added back to the poll books.
A bill in the Senate this year that was similar to what Reeves is proposing did not become law. But it’s worth another crack, not only to reduce the chances of voter fraud, especially with absentee ballots, but to make the court process more efficient.
Fielding juries is made more difficult in counties where the voter rolls have not been kept up to date. Because so many juror summonses come back undeliverable, court personnel have to send out many more notices than would be necessary with accurate rolls. It’s expensive and it slows down the jury selection process.
Those who claim that cleaning up voter rolls is a backdoor way to suppress voter turnout are being irrational. In predominantly black counties such as Leflore, this purging is going to be done largely by African American election officials.
It’s improbable that they are going to knowingly purge the names of valid voters who are Black.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.