Analysis: Gov. Barbour's budget sure to spark activism

In releasing his budget proposal last week, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour might’ve tapped into his own version of economic stimulus.

Call it the Lobbyist Full Employment Act of 2010.

Barbour announced a wide range of ideas that immediately made people mad, and it’s a safe bet that interest groups will convert their pent-up anger into action once the Legislature convenes in January.

He proposed merging the eight current universities into five, reducing the number of school districts from 152 to 100 and closing some mental health centers.

He said the Mississippi School for the Arts should close shop in Brookhaven, move 200 miles north to Columbus and join the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.

The governor also said local school districts should tap into their own financial reserves to help pay some education expenses normally paid by the state, and teachers should forego their annual “step” raises that give them more money for increased years of experience.

He said some smaller agencies should be absorbed by larger ones, and all agencies should see an average 12 percent budget reduction between the current fiscal year that ends June 30, and the new one that begins July 1.

Barbour, a Republican, will begin his seventh year as governor in January. He can’t seek re-election in 2011, and that might’ve given him the freedom to propose ideas that were, predictably, unpopular.

He said tough times call for tough solutions.

Mississippi’s revenue collections have fallen short of expectations 14 months in a row, and experts say states’ economic recoveries generally lag behind a national recovery.

Barbour held a closed-door meeting with House and Senate leaders to explain his budget before he unveiled it at a news conference. He described the lawmakers’ reaction as “subdued.”

“It’s hard stuff in here,” Barbour told journalists and state agency leaders. “But I think they understand, as I hope everybody who reads and watches this: We have to make the savings. OK? If you don’t like it this way, come up with another way. Come up with a better way.

“I hope somebody can come up with some improvements, and I’m sure some people will.”

Mississippi legislators have a long history of ignoring governors’ budgets, but some say they welcome input from Barbour because writing a spending plan is tricky when money is short.

Legislative leaders will release their own budget ideas in December, and the full 122-member House and 52-member Senate will vote on a plan in early 2010.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, often finds himself at odds with Barbour but said last week that he would not “tear into” the governor’s budget proposal. McCoy said he firmly disagrees with university consolidation.

“There’s too much good in the present system and the present locations,” McCoy told The Associated Press. “I can go down the line on each one of them. The politics of it is one thing, the practicality of it is another. I hate to use some old phrase, but I just think the governor’s overstepped there.”

Much of the lobbying for and against Barbour’s ideas will be done by volunteers who write letters, make phone calls or march at the Capitol. But plenty of advocacy work will be done by people who are paid handsomely to tap into their long-standing political connections.

Barbour was a high-profile Washington lobbyist before he became governor, so it’s not as if “lobbyist” is a dirty word to him. And, after all, in a state that’s looking for economic recovery, every job counts.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press