A lot of Mississippians are happy with our existing state of affairs. Indeed, we are the most religious and generous state in the nation. We have great hunting and fishing, little pollution, nice weather and plenty of room.
Mississippi is one of the least materialistic states in the country. Many Mississippians are more concerned with fearing God, helping others and being friendly than getting rich. Money isn’t everything.
But money helps. Good jobs are a good thing. Progress allows better health care, education, transportation and a host of other nice things.
So count me among the many Mississippians who would like to see economic progress in our state. As it stands now, Mississippi is losing population for the first time in 50 years.
How do we turn this around? What would Mississippi have to do to get on the economic fast track like North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia?
Mississippi is in the heart of the South, the fastest-growing region of the richest country in the history of the world. There is an opportunity for growth.
But to grow, Mississippi has to attract outside people and outside money. This means paying attention to the impression we make to the rest of the country.
Mississippi needs to be seen throughout the nation as a progressive state, not a backward state. How do we do that?
It’s public relations. PR. We have to sell ourselves. That means focusing on an image that appeals to the rest of the nation and world, not just ourselves.
First off, change the flag. A flag is symbolic. The Confederate battle flag sends a terrible signal. We’re (literally) waving a flag to the rest of nation, shouting, “Look at us! We’re stuck in the historic mud!”
Have you noticed how the national media seems to have given us a free pass on our flag? That’s because the nation collectively sighs and says, “Well, what do you expect? It’s Mississippi.” This is the worst possible way to attract outside investment.
This is not an argument about the Civil War or slavery or tradition or all the brave young men who sacrificed their lives 170 years ago. This is about shooting ourselves in the foot in terms of economic development. Our state is desperately in need of leadership on this issue. Solving this problem will cost very little money.
Then there is education spending. When Mississippi has the lowest per pupil spending, it reinforces all the negative stereotypes about our state. We need to spend as much as the average of the southeastern states. It’s not the formula that matters. It’s the amount we spend compared with our neighboring states. Right now, we are the lowest and dropping.
This year, the Mississippi Department of Revenue collected $50 million in online use taxes. That’s only a fifth of what’s out there. If we collected the full $250 million, we could close the gap in education spending.
Along with increased education spending, we must have the most aggressive school choice program in the country. That will bring competition to our educational system and make our state a more attractive place to live for families with school-age children. School choice redirects existing money. It does not increase costs.
We need to repeal the gay-bashing law. It is another PR disaster, giving us a black eye throughout the nation and the world. Tourism is big business in Mississippi, yet England and other European countries warn its citizens about the dangers of traveling to Mississippi. Six American states have banned official governmental travel to Mississippi because of that law.
The Apple CEO is gay. Do you think he would even consider investing in Mississippi? Not a chance. House Bill 1531 fixed a problem that didn’t exist and made us look mean and backward. Aren’t we supposed to be the “Hospitality State”? This will stunt our economic growth. It was political grandstanding. Repealing this bill costs no money.
We need a statewide jobs program instead of a handful of sweetheart deals for mega-corporations. Redirect those incentives to a broad-based program for all businesses. Why should only big companies get incentives for job creation?
We need procurement law reform. Nobody wants to do business in a state mired in “home cooking.” Why even try if the process is rigged? The Legislature is making great progress on this issue but much more needs to be done. For starters, we need to get rid of the “lowest and best” language and replace it with “lowest responsive bidder” like most progressive states have. This costs very little to implement and would send a big message that Mississippi is open for business.
We need to have good infrastructure, not a state in decay. Other states are raising the gas tax to fix bridges and roads, yet Mississippi dawdles. Anyone who drives through another state knows you judge the state by its roads. This will save taxpayers money by reducing car repairs and deferred maintenance.
We need a progressive mental health system that receives kudos from the experts, not condemnation. Once again, if Mississippi would show progressive leadership on this issue, the PR bonanza would be huge. Why run a centralized state-funded system when federal Medicaid dollars will fund a progressive, decentralized network of mental health centers? If we quit turning down a billion dollars a year in federal Medicaid, we could fund this system and vastly improve the financial health of our local hospitals.
We must have a vibrant state capital. A state will not grow if all the brightest people are leaving for Nashville and Austin. Millennials don’t want suburbia. They want a cool, hip downtown scene. If we don’t create it for them, they will continue to leave.
The new Capitol Improvement Complex is a huge step in the right direction. How will any outsider be impressed by Mississippi if the roads running through the state capital are potholed and the downtown area is dead?
This requires the state as a whole to commit to a great capital city. Birmingham has turned around. So can Jackson. But for Birmingham, it took $300 million in historic tax credits provided by the Alabama State Legislature. The incentives spent on the Continental Tire plant alone could have funded a downtown revival.
Every one of these proposals can be funded on existing tax revenue, as I have pointed out. In addition, there are other less important state expenditures that can be cut in order to fund what really matters. We should do the important things well and cut what is frivolous. Doing nothing will doom our state to economic stagnation, as we are seeing.
Wyatt Emmerich is the president of Emmerich Newspapers, Inc. in Jackson.