By Jason Browne
Recently announced lieutenant governor candidate and current State Treasurer Tate Reeves wasn't in campaign mode Thursday when he paid a visit to the Columbus Exchange Club.
Instead, Reeves did the unthinkable for a political candidate and focused on his current job, offering an update on the state's financial situation.
"If you look at us compared to states all over the country, we're in far better shape than most," he said.
Following two straight years of negative revenue growth which saw Mississippi lose 10 percent of its economic progress, the bleeding has stopped.
"While things are not getting better, at least we're beyond the point where every month they're getting worse," Reeves told the Exchange Club.
Thus far in fiscal year 2011, the state has exceeded revenue projections in six of seven months. Reeves estimates between 2-3 percent overall growth for 2011.
It's a slow start, but could be the beginning of another incredible growth spurt. Prior to 2009, Mississippi had registered negative growth just once in the last 40 years -- a 2 percent dip in 2002.
The state's revenue had grown by double-digit figures in 2007 and 2008.
Reeves pointed to state income taxes and sales tax receipts as the two strongest indicator of economic activity.
While the state can't create enough jobs to jump-start those figures, it can and has continued to create "an environment that encourages jobs."
"One of the things in Mississippi we have going for us is we haven't given up on manufacturing. Many states say 'We can't compete so why try?'" he said. "It's hard to compete (with foreign countries) in low-skill, low-wage manufacturing. But when you look at the jobs that have opened around here recently that are higher-skill, require you to learn a trade and offer higher wages, we can compete. And in fact, we are."
Still, Mississippi needs to better position itself to compete globally and with surrounding states. That's why Reeves says the state is helping with new roads around Severstal and new highway interchanges near the Toyota plant in Blue Springs.
"It's an investment to help encourage private sector jobs," he said.
But that's the public face of what the state is doing. Behind the scenes Reeves' office is working to lower the state's debt for a number of reasons. First, companies don't like to locate in states with high debt because those states are more likely to raise taxes. Second, a smaller debt equals a smaller annual payment.
At one point, Reeves said the state was paying $360 million per year in principal and interest on debt.
"Every dollar we spend on debt service is a dollar we can't spend on public education or public safety," he said.
And now, "As a percent of per capita income, Mississippi has its best relative (debt) ranking since 1996."