State treasurer exposes bad deal

Tim Kalich

Editor and Publisher

Greenwood Commonwealth

Republican Lynn Fitch has had some run-ins with legislative leaders from her own party during her time as Mississippi’s state treasurer. She blew, for instance, the whistle on the overmarketing and underfunding of the state’s prepaid college tuition program during the tenure of her predecessor, now Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. This week, she was at it again, describing as imprudent the bond bill that lawmakers passed in the closing days of the session. The bond bill was used as a bargaining chip to get through Reeves’ tax-cut plan, a highly questionable $415 million maneuver that is very likely to increase the state’s budget bind in years to come. Fitch says the bond bill, which commits the state to borrow $250 million this year and at least $50 million in future years, is loaded up with pork-barrel projects — just the kind that these same supposedly conservative lawmakers criticize when Congress does it. She also questions whether some of the projects in the bond bill can actually be funded legally with borrowed money, such as a $100,000 allocation for what appears to be an ongoing operating expense — salaries in the Jackson Police Department. Bond bills are intended for onetime capital outlays. And she says the new borrowing will continue to burden Mississippi taxpayers with a debt service that is higher than the national average. She reminds lawmakers that this $300 million is not all the money they agreed to borrow this year. There’s also the $274 million they committed to during a rushed-up one-day special session, most of it to subsidize the building of a tire plant near Clinton. Fitch says she wants the other two members of the state Bond Commission — Gov. Phil Bryant and Attorney General Jim Hood  — to scrutinize the projects individually before agreeing to proceed with borrowing the money. Fitch just needs one of the two to join her in killing some of the excesses, and she probably will have that in Hood, the lone Democratic statewide officeholder who himself has heavily criticized the Legislature’s recent financial decisions, particularly the tax cut. Politically, Fitch is going out on a limb by challenging the Republican power bloc less than a year after facing a re-election challenge within the GOP. Those who negotiated this deal, including Reeves, don’t much like having their imprudent horse-trading exposed. Fitch should be applauded, though, for taking the risk. Somebody needs to be looking out for the taxpayers’ money.