Based on the number of convictions for violating federal corruption laws, Mississippi – a state with just 3 million citizens – ranks at the very top of the list of all states, according to a recent study. Two college professors published their report in the May/June issue of Public Administration Review.
Their study said the high level of corruption in the state resulted in high state spending on projects most likely to be “bribe-generating” like capital improvements and highway construction, while leaving more socially beneficial projects like schools and health facilities behind. It also noted massive cost overruns on those projects thanks to those bribes as well as blatant payoffs to government officials getting wealthy at the expense of the poor. Said the authors:
First, public officials’ corruption is likely to increase state spending…
Second, public officials’ corruption … show that states with higher levels of corruption tend to spend more on items on which corrupt officials may levy larger bribes at the expense of others…
Public resources may be used for the private interests of the few instead of the needs of the many.
There are other indirect impacts of high levels of corruption that aren’t as obvious in states with stronger economies. Those stronger states may be able to carry the burden of corruption better than poorer ones. Jon Moen, chairman of economics at the University of Mississippi said corruption encourages businesses to join in and even encourage corruption:
Corrupt officials will encourage activities or businesses that will also provide them with the most benefits, whether they are outright bribes or more legal benefits like campaign contributions.
Rarely are these activities … true public goods, like elementary education, as they provide few direct monetary benefits that can be appropriated by a politician or a private interest.
A high level of corruption also discourages, or eliminates altogether, private entrepreneurial activity unless the business owner wants to play the game and build into his cost structure the bribes he must pay to operate.
One of those business owners not willing to pay to play was a small business owner who was also a Pentecostal preacher who refused to give a 10 percent kickback to local officials in his bid for a public capital project. When he complained, the FBI became interested. It set up a dummy corporation which offered to contract out bids for various capital projects, and the sting – called Operation Pretense – resulted in fifty-seven of Mississippi’s 410 county supervisors from twenty-six of the state’s eighty-two counties being charged under federal law with corruption.
But that sting operation which occurred in the 1980s is now ancient history and the corruption continues. The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) noted last year that the last major effort to rein in Mississippi corruptocrats was 2004:
The last major push for campaign finance reform in the state came during the 2004-05 legislative session. There were efforts to ensure that loans a candidate might receive for personal use were publicly reported and that independent groups that make political expenditures disclose their donors.
Legislation passed, but was vetoed by former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has all but given up trying to enforce the state’s nearly non-existent campaign finance laws. At present state pols can use political donations for their personal use and even keep those donations after they leave office. He told CPI that he doubts that the state – even if it wanted to – could force them to file disclosure reports that fully disclosed where the money came from and, more importantly, where it went. A candidate, for example, might file a report indicating that a certain sum was spent for a certain reason but without backup receipts showing the details.
The corruption in Mississippi continues apace. Last summer Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd was indicted on 31 counts of fraud, extortion, embezzlement, witness tampering and perjury. The Mississippi Supreme Court had to step in to appoint a judge to hear the case because the Jackson County judges had recused themselves.
The excessive corruption has taken its toll in Mississippi. If the state had just average corruption – equal, that is, to the corruption in the other nine states at the bottom of the list – the state could have saved more than $1,300 per person in bribes, kickbacks, and payoffs. Today Mississippi residents suffer from the lowest per capital personal income of any state, Mississippi students score the lowest of any state on the National Assessment tests, while the state is ranked third from the bottom of the American Human Development Index.
Mississippi has the highest teenage birth rate in the country, more than 60 percent above the national average and is ranked last in the country for health care. In addition, Mississippi ranks last among the fifty states for high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
The study failed to mention the moral decline attributable to the state’s corruption. It isn’t just a matter of money – payoffs, bribes and the like – but the whole panoply of human behavior that is affected by a culture that not only permits corruption to continue but appears also to encourage it without consequence.
A few years before he died, Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, was asked what he considered to be the most pressing fundamental problem the country faced. In the early 1980s, his response was chilling: “moral decline.” Thirty years later, the harvest of corruption is most obviously being observed in Mississippi. Other states like Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Alabama are right behind.