Do Mississippians want more federal money or less government? That’s essentially the choice being offered to them in the June 24 U.S. Senate GOP primary runoff election between incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
The winner faces Democrat and former U.S. congressman Travis Childers in November.
Federal spending in Mississippi is not chicken feed.
State Budget Solutions reports that from 2002-12 the state received 45.7 percent of its budget in federal money, the highest percentage for any state. Of the state’s K-12 education budget of $3.2 billion, $800 million came from federal money, and state universities and community colleges got $400 million.
Cochran’s campaign isn’t bashful about extolling its ability to “bring home the bacon,” including farm subsidies ($8.16 billion from 1995-2012), education, $29 billion for Hurricane Katrina relief and support for the area’s military bases, shipbuilding and aviation industries in the form of defense contracts.
Cochran is powerfully poised to help as the senior member on the Senate Committee on Appropriations and is vice chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
“Sen. Cochran believes in a balanced budget, sponsored the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and believes we need to live within our means,” Cochran’s spokesman Jordan Russell said. “He’s a fiscal conservative and always has been. But that doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for Mississippi’s interests and support worthy projects such as infrastructure and education.”
McDaniel has been sharply critical of the growth in federal spending during Cochran’s 36 years in office.
“There’s a clear and distinct division in the party right now,” McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch said. “You’ve got the conservative wing that thinks the way to prosperity is to take away the market distortions. We feel the inflow of federal dollars limits the infusion of capital since people tend to sit on the sidelines waiting for the federal money.”
Joshua Gordon, the policy director at the bipartisan Concord Coalition, said he doesn’t read too much into the back-and-forth rhetoric. He says he’s optimistic, despite gridlock on Capitol Hill, that common ground can be found on a host of issues, such as tax and Social Security reform. The coalition advocates for responsible fiscal policy.
“What candidates do and say on the campaign trail doesn’t concern me so much,” Gordon said. “Candidates say all sorts of things that are true, some that aren’t true and some that don’t have anything to do with the nation’s fiscal policy at all.”
Although the candidates have gotten feisty at times, the spigot of federal dollars to the states may be closing, regardless of who wins. With the federal government’s debt piling up at a massive rate, the free flow won’t last forever.
Analysis of the Congressional Budget Office’s latest update shows the nation’s fiscal health, despite sequestration cuts, in serious condition. The nation’s debt is up to $17.9 trillion and rising, according to the fiscal 2015 budget.
“If you look at the trajectory over the next 40 years, the debt is projected to grow to about 215 percent of GDP (gross domestic product), which more than doubles our previous high right after World War II,” Gordon said. “Those projections assume we won’t be embroiled in a large-scale international conflict like World War II, and they assume we have pretty steady economic growth for the next 40 years.”
Mounting debt and a crisis in entitlements brought on by an aging population and a shrinking workforce to pay for those benefits won’t converge all at once.
“This is something we have in our power to change,” Gordon said. “This is not something that’s being forced on us. What we need in Washington is decisions that change the course of these programs in Washington to have a more responsible fiscal path. These are long-term problems. The quicker you get a handle on them, the less the drastic the changes you have to make.”