The lieutenant governor of Mississippi has decided that huge tax cuts in the face of equally large reductions in a dwindling state budget make sense for our citizens. And yet, nothing could be more irresponsible. To essentially ignore the health, education and public safety of nearly three million people for political gain is a lesson in failure. One need only look across our border at Louisiana to see the outcome.
Six men – few of whom represent you or me – have locked themselves in a room at the state Capitol and decided our fate without any public input or scrutiny. Had they taken a moment to step outside and look around, they would have seen mental illness, poverty, joblessness, homelessness and struggling school students, all enveloped by crumbling streets, roads and bridges. Instead, they closed their eyes to the real issues facing Mississippi.
Let’s focus on just one: mental health. As attorney general, one of my jobs is to return money to taxpayers from unscrupulous corporations who have done us harm, such as BP. And in that regard we have been successful to the tune of nearly $3 billion. Most every time I’ve sent a check to our state Legislature, I’ve included a letter asking that a portion of those proceeds be put toward serving the needs of the mentally ill. Again, our leadership has closed its eyes and inexplicably decided to actually cut funds for mental health rather than increase them. The result of this ignorance is staggering.
Case in point: In Calhoun County, a 20-year-old mentally ill man accused of stabbing his stepmother in 2012 remains locked up and untried for the crime four years later. Why? Because of our state’s lack of mental health resources. “We are not set up to give mental care, that’s not what county jails are,” said Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan. “This person needs treatment.”
This man’s mental illness didn’t begin the day of the stabbing. Indications are that it began during childhood. Could the outcome have been different if we had the mental health capabilities that our legislative leadership has ignored for the past decade? We’ll never know.
The Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield does wonders with the resources available to it. Unfortunately, the Legislature has not heeded my multiple warnings and has continued to underfund the agency as a whole. The hospital is forced to turn one patient out to make a bed for another awaiting an evaluation of whether they are mentally competent to stand trial or are criminally insane.
Let me be clear: Just as bridges will begin to collapse in our state, mental health is a public safety crisis that is primed to explode.
Even a child understands that you can’t give away money that you don’t have. Rather than pass large, unneeded tax cuts designed only as means of pandering to those most able to make large campaign contributions, our state leadership needs to start acting like leaders. One reason Mississippi is in this current budget mess is because of the $350 million in tax breaks our lawmakers have handed out over the past few years. A mistake made more than once is a choice. In this case it’s a bad one.