Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Budget Talk: Why saving for a rainy day matters

*First appeared in the July 23 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

When I play word association with the month of July, some things come to mind: Independence Day. Bastille Day. Neshoba County Fair. Start of a new fiscal year.

We’ve already celebrated the red, white, and blue (and le rouge, blanc, et bleu) with fireworks, picnics, and luckily, no guillotines. The Neshoba County Fair, with its red dirt and horse races and political overtones, comes but once a year, but the new state fiscal year lasts twelve months. Let’s talk about it, shall we?

Mississippi’s fiscal year runs July 1 through June 30. Last legislative session, the Legislature adopted a balanced budget for FY 2015 that increased funding for priorities such as public safety and education, reduced reliance on one-time money, and filled the rainy day fund to its statutory limit.

This budget decision was a joint effort by the state’s top Republicans: Governor Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn. These conservative leaders recognize that a full rainy day fund can stave off future budget cuts and stabilize the budgeting process.

Like so many long-term approaches to public policy, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Setting aside funds for tomorrow’s uncertainties meant less funds for today’s projects.

A quick trip down memory lane reminds us of the value in having a budgetary umbrella for stormy weather – even if our umbrella isn’t as wide as it needs to be.

The Great Recession wreaked havoc on state finances, not only in Mississippi but across the nation. Collectively, states had about $60 billion in reserves to offset revenue losses, but they faced a combined shortfall nearly twice that amount ($117 billion), according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s “Building State Rainy Day Funds.”

While reserve accounts helped states weather this fiscal storm, the recession highlighted gaps in the saving practices employed by states which “could have set aside more in recent periods of growth if not for statutory limits on the total size of reserves and rules…that make saving a low budget priority.”

In Mississippi, our rainy day fund is officially known as the “Working Cash Stabilization Reserve Fund” and was created by the 1992 Budget Stabilization Act. The law defines a “full” rainy day fund as 7.5 percent of the state’s general fund budget to cover deficits that may occur as a result of revenue shortfalls.

When the recession hit Mississippi, it walloped state revenues. Over two fiscal years (2009 and 2010), Gov. Barbour was forced to cut budgets by more than $650 million. Fortunately, before state revenues tanked, lawmakers had filled the rainy day fund at about $380 million.

Most of these funds were used to stabilize the budgeting process during the recession and its aftermath, which lingered long after the recession’s official end.

The rainy day fund alone wasn’t enough to offset cuts, but it did provide a cushion that reduced the amount of cuts necessary to balance the budget without huge tax increases on Mississippians.

Those who criticize putting money aside for the future do so at the peril of risking funding for priority programs – whether it’s education, transportation, public safety, or other government services.

Mississippi’s experience is like that of other states: Our savings umbrella could have (and maybe should have) been larger, which would have more significantly reduced and/or eliminated the need for cuts in priority programs.

Because we statutorily cap our rainy day fund at 7.5 percent of spending, though, we didn’t have enough money to completely offset revenue shortfalls.

In fact, the idea of saving more – not less – is already underway. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s gives top scores to states with savings equal to or greater than 8 to 10 percent of annual revenue or spending. The Government Finance Officers Association suggests balances of up to two months’ worth of operating revenue, and the National Conference on State Legislatures recently opined that the five-percent rule (setting aside five percent of revenue) is no longer a universally applicable safeguard measure.

While revenues appear to be on the rise, those who control the purse strings must consider lessons learned from leaner times. I applaud the Republican leadership for their political courage in this regard.

When certain Democrats decry saving, saying we ought to “spend, spend, spend,” Republicans need only to remind them of yesteryear when we were able to avoid larger cuts to programs by using reserve funds.

The Pew Charitable Trust has it right: “In a recession, adequate reserves can improve states’ ability to keep promises already made, whether those are in the form of spending commitments, tax policies, or both.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Obama uses “like it, keep it” logic on implementation of healthcare law

*First appeared in the July 16 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Last week I listened to a rather intriguing presentation on the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare” or “PPACA,” by law professor Jonathan Adler (not to be confused with the designer who shares the same name).

Adler has been described as one of the foremost minds in the country on legal challenges facing the healthcare law. He’s an outspoken critic of the law and has provided the framework for arguments being used in cases challenging the law that are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court (which is often referred to as “SCOTUS” in case you’re keeping track of this alphabet soup).

Healthcare policy isn’t sexy; the nuts and bolts of the law’s implementation even less so. Yet the administrative actions taken by the Obama administration raise concerns about the scope of the President’s power and the legality of an administration gone rogue.

When the President told Americans (and I’m paraphrasing) “if you like it, you can keep it,” I thought he meant health insurance. Turns out, he has applied this line of thinking to implementation of the healthcare law. Obama has kept what he liked, and delayed (or modified) what he didn’t.

That’s a pretty bold move for the executive branch, which is charged with administering, not modifying, laws passed by Congress. (Perhaps this administration may enjoy a few complimentary copies of Schoolhouse Rock?)

Here are a few examples of the wishy-washy implementation of Obamacare, as noted by Adler.

First, the healthcare law provides tax credits and subsidies for purchasing health insurance on state-run insurance exchanges, yet many states have refused to set up exchanges. This refusal creates a multitude of problems for implementation of the healthcare law, as the subsidies and credits were seen as tools to enforce both the employer and individual mandate. Obama’s solution to fixing this “problem” (read: miscalculation in Democrat strategy) was to have his Internal Revenue Service broaden the scope of the tax credits and subsidies beyond what the law allowed.

Then there’s the example of the IRS delaying the employer mandate to provide health insurance to employees. Adler alluded to congressional testimony in which the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury told lawmakers the administration had not sought legal counsel on whether such a delay met legal muster. (Why bother the lawyers on issues of law?)

The “if you like it, you can keep it” fixes allowed for grandfathering in certain plans that were in effect as of October 2013. The 3-page guidance letter issued by Obama’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (a.k.a. “CMS”) is inconsistent with the healthcare statutes, but it’s a good talking point. Forget legislative bills; now we’re making laws via “guidance letters.”

Another implementation trick included the sequester tax credit fix. Were tax credits on the chopping block during the sequester or not? The IRS couldn’t decide and actually published guidance favoring both sides of the issue. “They got it right at least once,” joked Professor Adler.

Time and again we’ve seen the Obama team keep what they like and change what they didn’t, carelessly abandoning the notion of constitutional restraints on the president’s authority.

Or so it would seem, based on the legal analysis offered by supporters of the President’s landmark legislation. Nicholas Bagley, a fellow law professor and supporter of the healthcare law (according to Adler), has written extensively on the subject of executive overreach.

Of Obama’s delays, he says that some administrative tweaks are necessary and acceptable, “yet the executive branch’s authority to decline to enforce statues is not limitless,” with recent delays of the law appearing to exceed the scope of the traditional enforcement discretion given to the executive office.

Moreover, these actions “set a troubling precedent” which, if left unchecked, “would mark a major shift of constitutional power away from Congress, which makes the laws, and toward the President, who is supposed to enforce them.”

Whether you support the law or not, you ought to pay attention to what’s happening in D.C. Obamacare may kill our economy, but the greater threat is a President who tilts our system of checks and balances in favor of a stronger executive branch.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On Freedom Riders, Haley Barbour, and Growing the GOP

*First appeared in the July 9 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

On Monday, civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis tweeted the following: “53 yrs ago today I was released from Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson for using ‘white’ restroom.” His tweet was accompanied by a black and white mug shot taken at the Jackson police department.

Lewis was part of the Freedom Riders who traveled the South to protest segregation. In 2011, Mississippi joined with the riders to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their Freedom Rides. At Gov. Barbour’s request, the state played a large role in coordinating many of the memorials and activities planned for that week. As the staff member responsible for this project, I gained new perspective on an age-old issue.

Seeing the Governor of Mississippi, on behalf of the state, welcome the Freedom Riders, apologize for their mistreatment in 1961, and thank them for the chance to atone and reconcile was powerful.

That’s just one of the many reasons I can’t stomach it when I read accusations that Haley Barbour is responsible for “race-baiting” in the recently concluded U.S. Senate campaign.

The narrative that Haley Barbour drummed up black votes in some desperate scheme to re-elect Thad Cochran is bogus. Indeed, he’s been trying to increase black participation in Republican politics for decades – not out of desperation, mind you, but out of a sincere desire to grow the conservative movement.

In a 1997 column that appeared in the Washington Post, then-outgoing Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour had some parting advice on growing the GOP.

“We are failing to communicate effectively to many women and minorities why our proposals are the right policies…Look at the issue of education…Too many never heard us say our goal is to have education money spent in local schools instead of on the Washington bureaucracy. [Minorities and women] never heard us say we want to give parents, teachers, and local school boards more control than the unions and federal bureaucrats. They never heard us say of school choice: Bill Clinton and Albert Gore should not be the only parents living in ‘public housing’ able to send their children to private schools.”

Haley Barbour thinks the GOP’s message on education policy ought to resonate with black and women voters.

Scandalous!

In 2003, Barbour had the opportunity to heed his own advice when he challenged former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove for the state’s top job. WLBT, the NBC-affiliate in Jackson, covered his efforts to court black voters: “[Barbour] has been traveling around the state…meeting with black community leaders” to better understand their concerns for Mississippi’s future.

Outrageous!

In 2007, when Barbour ran for re-election, his campaign focused on job growth, educational opportunities, and rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina – issues that resonated with a cross-section of Mississippi voters. According to a 2007 Associated Press article, Barbour strived “to win 20 percent of the black vote, and blacks figure prominently in his ads and campaign literature.” He even received the endorsement of the former president of the historically black Jackson State University and had a campaign staff member assigned to minority outreach.

Despicable!

When the election rolled around, Barbour enjoyed somewhere between 20-25 percent of the African American vote. He’d be the first to tell you that he worked hard to get those votes, and that many of his black supporters were the same folks who cast a vote for Thad on June 24.

Conspiracy!

You get the point. Haley Barbour has consistently tried to grow the Republican Party, not by abandoning conservative principles but by messaging them in a way that gets the attention of prospective voters, whether they’re black, female, or Hispanic.

A product of the Reagan White House (and we’ve heard a lot about Reagan lately), Barbour has always applied a “big tent” philosophy to growing Republican ranks. Instead of some litmus test to determine party eligibility, Barbour adheres to that old Gipper quip: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally, not some 20 percent traitor.”

In order to push forward conservative principles, we must win elections. To win elections, we must continue growing the GOP, which means all of us – from liberty-lovers to freedom-fighters – must get serious about outreach to minority and women voters.

To borrow some more parting advice from that 1990s outgoing RNC Chairman: We’ve got to “communicate not only what we’re for, but why we’re for it and how it will improve the lives of everyday Americans...[We’ve got to] reach out to those who agree with us on the issues but do not yet vote for us.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sports investments in the Magnolia State

*First appeared in the July 2 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

While the eyes of Mississippi have been watching the bloodsport known as politics, the rest of America has been watching the sport known domestically as soccer and internationally as futbol.

I note with irony some similarities between the two “sports.” Soccer is the only sport (besides elections) in which a tie is an acceptable outcome, at least until the next round (er, runoff). You can’t touch the ball with your hands (in politics, the smart athletes never get their hands dirty). Age – be it youthful vigor or maturity on the field – is always an issue. And apparently hairstyles matter, too (see: Trent Lott, Cristiano Ronaldo).

But let’s get beyond soccer, the sport no one really cares about until the World Cup. Mississippians love football – I’m talking shoulder pads, helmets, testosterone, and college jingles that bond generations of fraternity brothers.

We love basketball and baseball to a lesser extent, and I think there’s maybe one or two of us that even watch hockey. Because these sports are so woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives, it makes sense, then, that policymakers would consider sports-related investments as part of comprehensive economic development efforts.

But, what do such investments get us? Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI) recently presented its findings on “the economic impact of professional sports.” They looked at the Big Four – NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. (Sorry, futbol fans; no soccer stats here.)

Total payroll for these leagues is astounding: NFL came in at $3.4 billion; followed by MLB at $3.39 billion. The NBA surprised me, coming in at $2 billion, and the National Hockey League came in at $1.6 billion.

Not so surprising is the professional football league (NFL) is the most lucrative in the world. Its most valuable franchises are, in descending order, the Dallas Cowboys ($2.3 billion), New England Patriots ($1.8 billion), and Washington Redskins ($1.7 billion).

Major League Baseball franchises have an average value of $744 million, a more than twenty percent increase from 2012 to 2013. That’s good news – or, you might say, a home run? – for baseball fans. Its most valuable franchises include the New York Yankees (at $2.3 billion) and the Boston Red Sox (at $1.3 billion).

On the courts, the National Basketball Association franchises raked in a 25 percent increase in value over the year, with the average around $634 million. Most valuable franchises are the New York Knicks at $1.4 billion, the Los Angeles Lakers at $1.35 billion, and the Chicago Bulls right at $1 billion.

Since my frame of reference for all things basketball centers around Michael Jordan, I’m thrilled to learn the Bulls have retained their hoops prestige.

The National Hockey League isn’t as weighty. I won’t go into details because Southerners don’t care about ice games (although I hear the Bandits, a hockey team formerly based in Jackson, were entertaining to watch).

More to the point, REMI looked at stadiums to determine their economic impact on cities and regions. Interestingly, taxpayers have absorbed 70 percent of the capital costs of stadiums, and at least 12 teams have turned profits on subsidies alone.

The core industries driven by professional sports (including stadiums) are retail trade, transportation, accommodations, food services and drinking places, and amusement, gambling, and recreation. While these industries typically see an uptick, it’s not clear whether this is new business or simply reallocation of existing patrons from one area to another.

The breadth of major league sports can generate a positive impact on communities and regions, but I assume the impact of minor league is murkier. Coincidentally, Mississippi must be careful when weighing fiscal responsibility with athletic expansions.

Mississippi assisted the Mississippi Braves Stadium through about $8 million in tax incentives in 2005. To date, the stadium seems to have had a positive economic impact on the area, which now includes a Sam’s Club, an outlet mall (which also received tax incentives from the state, by the way), and many restaurants.

Earlier this year, the Huntsville Stars announced they are relocating to a yet-to-be-built stadium in Biloxi. The cost of construction will include local bond funding as well as $15 million in money from the state, according to media reports.

On top of these professional venues, public institutions like Jackson State University continue to make plays at the State Capitol for taxpayer dollars to build a domed stadium in Jackson.

It’s easy to get excited about sports, and even easier to assume sports-related projects are smart investments. But the economic impact of these investments is a mixed bag and varies heavily by community, region, and state. The safest play is to let the private sector – not taxpayer funds – dictate who scores in the sports arena.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mississippi farmers, beekeepers agree to “bee aware”

*First appeared in the June 25 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

When I first heard about the global decline of honeybee populations, I worried. Where are they going? And why? From news articles to documentaries to conversations with others who shared my concerns, it was clear that no one had answers.

Overwhelmed with a sense of abandonment, I decided the hard-working honeybees must have gotten fed up with the human condition, leaving us a la Atlas Shrugged.

For more concrete data, I visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website to investigate “Colony Collapse Disorder,” its history, and any known causes.

In 2006, some beekeepers reported losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives, an unusually high loss ratio. According to the USDA, the main symptom of CCD is “very low or no adult honeybees present in the hive but with a live queen and no dead honeybee bodies present.” Managed honeybee colonies have decreased in number from five million in the 1940s to just 2.5 million today. To date, researchers have not identified a cause of CCD.

Great. So humans aren’t the only ones abandoned, but that seems of little comfort when no one has any idea on how to deal with the revolutionary little creatures.

No one, that is, except Mississippi farmers and beekeepers who are working together to promote honeybee population growth and strong agricultural partnerships through the Honeybee Stewardship Program.

The Miss. Farm Bureau Federation has worked alongside the Miss. Beekeepers Association, Miss. Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Miss. State University Extension Service, and other partners to develop standards to “serve as a basic guideline for cooperative standards that should exist between farmers and beekeepers when bees are located in or near agricultural production areas.”

The issue here is that beekeepers sometimes place their hives in close proximity to farms, putting the bees at risk of coming into contact with pesticides used at these farms. Working together, the beekeepers and producers have adopted several strategies to ensure mutually beneficial agricultural and bee yields.

These strategies include:

“Know your farmer, know your beekeeper”: Farmers and beekeepers are encouraged to develop strong relationships and exchange basic information, like name, phone number, location of hive, commodities grown in the fields adjacent to hive locations, and general information on the type and frequency of insecticides applied on these commodities.

Mississippi “Bee Aware” Flag: This effort has led to the creation of a unified flagging system to clearly mark apiary locations near crop fields. The flag – which is, of course, four stripes of intermittent black and yellow – provides a landmark that is highly visible to farmers operating ground-driven equipment or aerial applicators. The “Bee Aware” flag reminds farmers and others to take great care with insecticide applications so as to eliminate or reduce the risk to the bees.

Other strategies include common-sense ideas, like using GPS to locate beehives and accessing wind direction before applying pesticides.

The USDA says bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value annually, and one out of every three times we take a bite of food benefits directly or indirectly from honeybees. That said, it just makes sense that Mississippi farmers and beekeepers would develop a partnership to help preserve these precious pollinators.

The next time you see a news report about the disappearing insects, remember to thank your local farmers and beekeepers for doing their part to save the buzz!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ingalls shipbuilding a Mississippi marvel

*First appeared in the June 18 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Last week I visited Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. as part of the Leadership Mississippi class. Over the years I’ve done some work with the good folks at Ingalls, particularly in the realm of workforce development. Somehow, though, I had never actually toured the shipbuilding campus.

In three words, it was amazing.

Located on 800 acres, Ingalls Shipbuilding employs more than 11,000 employees, making it the largest manufacturing employer in the state. Nearly thirteen percent, or 1,500 workers, of the workforce are veterans. This year, Ingalls is looking to hire approximately 3,000 to 3,500 more workers, making it the size (population-wise) of a small Mississippi city.

The sheer number of people employed by this company is staggering. How do you keep them on task, working toward the same goal? It seems impossible, but my background in politics may not be the best environment for learning how to work as a team.

Ingalls employees are passionate about what they do – so it helps if you, too, understand what the company does here in Mississippi.

They’re the largest supplier of U.S. Navy surface combatants, having built over 70 percent of Navy fleet of warships. Ingalls is the builder-of-record for 28 of the 62-ship Aegis DDG 51 class of guided missile destroyers, as well as the LHA 6 class large deck amphibious ships and prime builder of the Navy’s newest fleet of the San Antonio class of amphibious assault ships.

Three Ingalls-built LPD ships have been named in remembrance of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: USS New York, Arlington, and Somerset. As we learned last week, the New York ship actually has metal from the Twin Towers melded into it.

There’s no other way to say this: Ingalls makes some pretty awesome ships. Awesomely terrifying, if you’re the enemy.

Maybe that’s why Ingalls employees feel so strongly about the nature of their work. From engineers to communications professionals; from electrical workers to welders, virtually everyone I met at the shipyard seemed genuinely excited to be there. They share a single purpose: To protect the nation’s security and economic interests.

One of our tour guides was head of the electrical team and came from a military family. He was a product of the military, just as his father before him and his son after him and his sister and his sister-in-law and, he hoped, his grandson.

His patriotism was inspiring and translated well into his day-to-day job at Ingalls. Like one of the company representatives noted, “sea power controls trade. If you control the ocean, you control economies around the world.” America having the world’s most advanced naval fleet not only helps secure our nation, but it also strengthens our economy.

That’s when our class began shouting in unison, “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” (Okay, not really. But that would have been cool.)

Our tour guide told us he “didn’t know anything about electricity” when he first began working at Ingalls, but he quickly learned the ropes and eventually worked his way up to the director position. It reminded me of something I’ve said before: More young people need to recognize the value of on-the-job training as well as the importance of the skilled trades, like welding, pipefitting, or electrical work.

You don’t have to get a four-year degree to be successful or to contribute to your state and nation. There are numerous Ingalls workers who have earned community college degrees or other credentials who are protecting America each and everyday.

But back to our tour guide. About this time he pointed out what I believe is the largest crane I have ever seen – nicknamed “Goliath” I soon learned. The size of the machinery needed to build these ships is crazy. For example, Goliath the Crane can lift up to 660 tons. You need to have a lot of training and some wicked confidence to operate that piece of equipment.

Because the campus is so large and accidents do occur, there is a hospital on-site, replete with certified doctors, three fire trucks, and two ambulances. Not only does Ingalls take seriously the safety of our nation, they also take seriously the safety of their workers.

While on our tour, I did notice that male workers overwhelmingly outnumbered female workers, which isn’t terribly surprising. A recent study conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that women are underrepresented in the manufacturing sector nationwide, representing only one-fourth of the industry’s workforce. Across all industry sectors, women represent about half – so that’s quite a difference.

“Tougher than steel. Only the best shipbuilders in the world can build the finest ships at sea,” proclaims the Ingalls website in reference to its workers. But I’m not surprised, you see. They are, after all, referring to Mississippians.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

McDaniel's record on PERS at conflict with campaign staff claims

*First published in the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

The long-term sustainability of our state retirement system is the greatest fiscal challenge facing Mississippi in the foreseeable future. It’s an issue that really presses my buttons. So when it got used as a political talking point in the U.S. Senate campaign, I felt compelled to respond.

PERS is the acronym for the Public Employees’ State Retirement System, which covers employees of state agencies, cities, counties, community colleges, universities, and school systems, including teachers.

There are a lot of voters – more than 90,000 retirees and 162,000 active members – who depend on PERS, rendering it a so-called “third rail of politics.” Any politician brave enough to even broach the issue of its long-term sustainability may have committed political suicide.

Which makes it all the more rare that an official would address the issue head on, but that’s exactly what Gov. Barbour did by creating a PERS Study Commission in 2011. The need for the commission was brought to a head when the economy fizzled during the Great Recession. The pension plan was already suffering from the irresponsibility of the Mississippi Legislature, which chose to grant retroactive benefits in the 1990s and early 2000s without paying for these massive new costs. Excessive benefit enhancements coupled with the market downturn crippled our system.

Taxpayers contribute more than $900 million annually to PERS, and costs keep on rising. In just ten years, taxpayer contributions have jumped 60 percent, largely because of the plan’s $15 billion in unfunded liabilities.

To put that into perspective: The state of Mississippi currently has about $4 billion in bonded indebtedness. What we owe to PERS in the future is nearly four times that amount! You get the idea. This isn’t sustainable.

Yet last week, Chris McDaniel policy director Keith Plunkett criticized Barbour’s efforts, saying his candidate “stood up against [the PERS study commission].” Plunkett implied that Gov. Barbour’s intention in creating the study commission was to change the cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and other retirees.

In his comments, Plunkett quoted McDaniel from 2011: “Misleading retirees and state employees as a political ploy is inexcusable.”

Amen. Now let’s examine who’s misleading who.

First: The executive order creating the PERS Study Commission specifically defined its purpose, which was to make “recommendations on improving the financial, management, and investment structure of PERS.” At no point did the order even mention “cost-of-living adjustment.”

Will Flatt, a financial expert and member of the study commission, explained on Facebook that “Governor Barbour only gave us direction to study PERS. He gave no specific judgment or pre-conceived guidance” on any issue.

So Plunkett’s story doesn’t add up on the first point.

His second claim was that Chris McDaniel opposed this plan to study the state’s retirement system. Let’s examine.

In 2011, the Miss. Senate passed S.C.R. 678 to “develop and make recommendations on improving the financial, management, and investment structure of the retirement system.” That language sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

A majority of the Senate, including Senator Chris McDaniel, voted in favor of the resolution. It was the right vote to make. The only reason S.C.R. 678 didn’t succeed is because the Democrat-led House of Representatives killed it. Only then did Gov. Barbour establish the study commission via executive order.

Plunkett’s claim that McDaniel opposed Barbour’s study commission is wrong based on verifiable legislative record, which leads me to draw one of two conclusions: Either Plunkett doesn’t know where his candidate stands on the issue (not a good quality for a policy director, mind you), or McDaniel now agrees with the Democrats who wanted to – and did – kill the PERS resolution.

Finally, back to that quote from McDaniel about “misleading retirees.” Remember that in 2011, Democrats were afraid (and rightly so) of losing their hold on the Miss. House, so they latched onto any issue that might give them traction. They used many scare tactics but none so aggressively as PERS. Democrats claimed Republicans were trying to dismantle the retirement system and balance the budget on the backs of retirees. This Democrat argument ultimately rang hollow with voters, who saw past this contrived political smokescreen.

Now it seems the McDaniel campaign is attempting to use those same Democrat tactics to confuse this legitimate issue during the heated Senate primary. It’s a bad political move and terrible policy.

State Senator McDaniel cast the right vote in 2011 to study the PERS system. Back then, he said the system’s exploding unfunded liabilities “could become problematic” in the future if not addressed.

But U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel appears to have sacrificed sound policy for political expediency. Sure, PERS is a political hot potato. I get that. But that’s what elected officials are selected by voters to do – deal with difficult issues. That’s what the Chris McDaniel campaign has promised to do: Never surrender. Never back down. Lead the good fight.

If McDaniel backs down from PERS, will he back down from other serious issues, too? Being a U.S. Senator is no easy task, and it will take someone with strong convictions to get the job done. Mississippi can’t afford politicians who retreat at the first sign of political sensitivity.