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Dunagin: You Can’t Trust the Mississippi Legislature with Trust Funds

Charles Dunagin
Charles Dunagin

You can’t anymore trust the Mississippi Legislature with trust funds than you can a Parchman trusty with a leave of absence.

Recent and not so recent financial decisions by the Legislature bring to mind one of the more hilarious remarks by the late Gov. Ross Barnett who is remembered almost as much for his verbal gaffes as for trying to keep the first African-American from enrolling at Ole Miss.

In 1961, a State Penitentiary inmate called Cowboy Dale Morris, a former Dude ranch hand who had a reputation of being handy with horses and ladies, had earned the trust of prison officials.

In an era when Parchman was a sprawling prison farm, Morris convinced the powers that be that he could secure a fine stallion in Arkansas the prison could use for breeding purposes. So the prison superintendent sent Morris, a trusty, along with two guards to Fort Smith to get the horse. Morris convinced the two guards to return with the horse while he stayed behind for a few hours to get married.

Several days later when the cowboy was arrested in another state and it came to light what had happened, the governor — who apparently had approved the trip — opined: “If you can’t trust a trusty who can you trust?”

Not the Legislature when it comes to trust funds.

Mississippi agency heads, both at the state and local levels, are complaining about legislation this year which swept special funds they collect for specific uses into the state’s general fund.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who reins over the Senate, claims it was for more “transparency”, as if that’s a principle the Legislature generally follows.

More likely, it was to try shore up a shaky budget which doesn’t make sense and to give lawmakers more control over spending.

Whatever its merits, the legislation wasn’t properly thought out, and it now appears that a number of lawmakers who voted for it didn’t understand all the ramifications.
Some are saying they’re going to have to modify the sweep either in a special session or next January. Sort of like Obamacare which Republicans decry: pass it quickly without understanding it and then try to fix it later.

Attorney General Jim Hood says some of the money being swept into the general fund is from “trust funds” which he believes state law protects from being swept into the general fund.

But that hasn’t stopped the biggest trust fund of them all from being wiped out.

As Emily Wagster Pettus of the Associated Press reminded us in her column this week, back in 1999 the Legislature created a health care trust fund.

The plan was to invest the state’s multi-million annual payments from the tobacco lawsuit into the fund. Mississippi was estimated to receive about $4 billion over 25 years and possibly more in years to come.

The plan was to invest all the payments from the tobacco companies and only spend the earnings which would have been significant.

But a recession hit, and the Legislature began chipping away at the principal. Currently annual tobacco settlement payments are going straight into the state budget instead of the trust fund.

It’s a bipartisan trust busting too, starting when Democrats were in control of the Legislature and accelerated under Republicans.

Too bad Ole Ross isn’t around to explain it all.


Charles Dunagin is a retired editor and publisher who is currently residing in Oxford, Mississippi. He can be reached at cdunagin@enterprise-journal.com.

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