Even before the Mississippi Legislature decided to take an extended break from work in response to the coronavirus, whatever was happening around the Capitol was being overshadowed by the spreading pandemic and the fear and anxiety it was creating.
When state lawmakers return to Jackson, whenever that may be, they almost certainly will have to scale back some of their spending ambitions from what they anticipated just a month or two ago.
COVID-19 — and the self-inflicted global recession that has been adopted in an effort to stymie its spread — has flipped the script on revenue projections for Mississippi. It will take a few weeks or months to know the extent of the downturn. Most assuredly, though, whatever surplus had recently built up will evaporate as tax collections slump and the state continues to pay all of its employees, including those not working. There is about a half-billion dollars, thankfully, in the state’s rainy day fund to help cover shortfalls for a while, but if the downturn goes on for months, that cushion will quickly evaporate.
It seems probable that some of the Legislature’s big plans — as well as those of first-term Gov. Tate Reeves and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann — will have to be scaled back if not put on hold. Among them are the teacher pay raises that the top two Republican officeholders promised, as well as a blanket pay raise for state employees.
Teachers and state employees should not grumble, however. If they can hold onto their jobs through all of what’s coming, they should be glad. Tens of thousands of Mississippians may not be so fortunate. Even before the full effects of the partial shutdown were felt, newly filed unemployment claims in the state jumped fivefold, according to figures released Thursday.
It is a shame that Reeves, while he was lieutenant governor, and the Republican majorities in the Legislature squandered in the past couple of years the opportunity to raise the fuel tax. Even with today’s trauma over the coronavirus, no one would be griping about an extra 10 to 20 cents a gallon, given how cheap gasoline is presently. But now, with a deep recession dawning, it’s going to be even more politically difficult to raise the tax.
Had the fuel tax been increased during the previous term, the infusion of money could have created an avenue for some of those now losing their jobs to find work — repairing and replacing the state’s worn-out roads and bridges. What’s coming in from the state lottery for infrastructure was supposed to help pay for some of the long-deferred maintenance. With travel curtailed and demand for gasoline crimped, however, the state will be fortunate if the lottery money keeps highway spending from falling further behind.
Reeves and the Republican leadership could not have anticipated a pandemic. Nevertheless, their obstinate attitude toward raising the fuel tax looks even more misguided today than it did a year or two ago.