Shad White

SHAD WHITE

Promoting blues music in Mississippi is important for attracting tourists to our state, promoting a positive image of Mississippi to businesses and customers around the world, and preserving a unique part of our culture.

But for the government office that promotes the blues, all good things must come to an end.

Last week, my office concluded a performance audit of the Mississippi Blues Commission, the small commission that the state established to put signs up around Mississippi at historically important blues sites. That audit’s final recommendation was that the Blues Commission be dissolved. Its responsibilities should be turned over to a private non-profit.

Why close up shop?

First, our audit found the Commission had serious bookkeeping issues. It failed to provide proper documentation for more than $950,000 worth of spending. It also failed to provide contracts for nearly $2 million in payments to vendors. That means virtually every penny of spending done by the Commission could not be backed up by proper paperwork.

In government, we are not handling our money. We are handling your money, taxpayer money. And when we’re handling it, we have a heightened responsibility to keep track of where the money is going. That heightened responsibility was not met here.

To be clear, we saw no evidence of theft. There’s also plenty of evidence that the Commission did exactly what the Legislature asked them to do (place blues markers around the state). But doing good work is not sufficient. Government must also make sure we can prove where your money went and that it wasn’t stolen.

Second, the Commission should be shuttered because there is a private non-profit that can promote Mississippi blues music. The Mississippi Blues Foundation is a 501©3 that has raised significant funds from private individuals over the past few years. They have used that money to fund blues performers as they travel the state playing music. The Foundation also has the ability to apply for grants and perform the same functions as the government commission if Foundation board members believe it would be useful.

That brings me to the larger, third reason for ending the Commission: government agencies and boards should not outlive their functions. If the board has done its job, as the Blues Commission has, then we should end it and get it off the books. The Blues Commission has put up more than 200 blues markers around the state and has debated whether there are even any other reasonable places to commemorate.

Now is the time to show that an arm of government can perform a function and then be returned to the private sector.

We should always be looking for opportunities like this to be more efficient. Mississippi has 134 boards, commissions, and agencies in state government. In the past there have been efforts to find savings at these government entities. Some proposed consolidating the back-office functions of the smaller agencies and commissions. Those efforts to find savings lost steam, but it’s time to raise this topic of conversation again.

Aside from finding efficiencies, there is another reason to have this conversation. Many of these entities like the Blues Commission are small, and small government offices are, unfortunately, often prone to fraud and theft.

No one is suggesting closing critical agencies, of course. Professionals around the state will still need to be licensed and regulated, the public will need to be kept safe, and core functions of government like education and infrastructure will need to be maintained. But we can protect important functions of government and have a conversation about how to save your money at the same time.

Saving money requires a little bit of courage. I’m sure some people will say that my proposal here proves I hate the blues. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m proud to tell my friends that Mississippi is the Birthplace of America’s Music. I think the blues will play a big role in growing our economy in the future. I think it’s an art that is critical to preserve. And I love the juke joint Po’ Monkey’s, for the record.

I also just happen to think that taxpayers deserve consideration, too, and I’m willing to take a little heat to say the things that some folks are thinking, but perhaps aren’t willing to say. In this case, that “thing” is that it’s time to return the blues back to the people from the government.

SHAD WHITE is the 42nd State Auditor of Mississippi. Readers can contact him at auditor@osa.ms.gov.

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