By Emily Wagster Pettus / The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Balancing a budget in a tough economy will be the top challenge as Mississippi lawmakers embark on their three-month 2011 session, Gov. Haley Barbour says.
This will be the eighth and final year in office for Republican Barbour, who is term-limited and can’t seek re-election.
During a wide-ranging pre-session interview with The Associated Press, Barbour said he wants to work with lawmakers to ensure Mississippi has at least $200 million left in its financial reserves after the budget for the coming year is set.
Tens of millions of federal stimulus dollars are disappearing over the next year and a half, and the governor said having significant financial reserves will provide stability and help the state in its job creation efforts.
“The biggest single thing that’s on my mind, of course, is what’s on most Mississippians’ minds — economic growth and job creation,” Barbour said. “That’s the most important thing that can be done for Mississippi. The governor’s the chief economic development officer, in my opinion. And continuing to push for better, for higher skilled, better-paying jobs for Mississippians is the absolute first thing on my list — that, and the budget.”
Legislators convene at noon Jan. 4.
Mississippi, like most states, is required to balance its budget each fiscal year. Barbour has released his budget proposal for the year the begins July 1, and the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee has released its own, separate plan. All 122 House members and 52 senators are scheduled to vote on a final plan by early April.
“A sound budget is an economic development tool,” Barbour said. “If companies think next year or the year after, Mississippi is going to have to raise taxes because we’re spending beyond our means, that’s a factor to not come here. If they think we’re not going to be able to fund the programs in years down the road, that’s another reason not to come here.”
Here are excerpts from Barbour’s interview with AP:
AP: Beyond the budget, what are the two or three biggest issues you’re pushing in 2011?
Barbour: “I am continuing to try to upgrade work force training in the state. Having seven years of economic development and job creation experience, I am totally convinced and have seen that the quality of the work force is the number one issue for potential employers.”
AP: And so what needs to be done specifically for that?
Barbour: “Improve skills training….. Previously, and including this year, we appropriated money to the K-12 schools for vocational and technical training…. The Mississippi Department of Education then turns around and gives $26 million or so to the community colleges. I proposed increasing that to $33 million but appropriating it directly to the community colleges. There’s no reason to give it to the state Department of Education and them turn around and give it to the community colleges.”
AP: What has been the logic behind that?
Barbour: “It’s beyond me.”
AP: So, you would increase it by $7 million and give it to the community colleges?
Barbour: “That way, we have better accountability. Everybody knows the community colleges got this $33 million — now, what did they do with it? And the K-12 budget is not overstated anymore by this money that they’re just a conduit to the community colleges.”
AP: Are you concerned that you’ll be criticized, that people will say you’re cutting K-12 funding?
Barbour: “I think maybe some legislators are looking at it that way, but that’s a fraud. I mean, it’s a ruse. This money goes to community colleges. It just goes to them via the state Department of Education.”
AP: When you’re talking about skills training, that could be anything from more welding and pipefitting classes down near the shipyards to….
Barbour: “…. Computer programming. One of the things that I’m working on with the U.S. Department of Education is to try to better utilize federal education money like Pell grants for work force training. Today, if you go to community college and take a course in skills training — pipefitting, welding — and it’s taught on a semester basis, you can get federal aid. You can get a Pell grant. If you go and take a 12-week course, or a six-week course in welding, you can’t. When people want to upgrade their skills and get back to work as quickly as possible, it makes no sense to make them go to a four-month, semester-based skills training if, in fact, they can get the skills they need in six or 12 weeks. I have asked Secretary (Arne) Duncan to make Mississippi a pilot for doing this….. Training is not just so people can get their first job. It’s so they can keep their job, or so they can later get a better job.”
AP: Any other issues you’re pushing?
Barbour: “Law enforcement stays high on my priority list. Trying to figure out how to pay for a trooper school. We have 530 or so sworn officers at the Highway Patrol. I want to get more of them on the road. One way is to have a trooper school and add troopers…. But another critical, easier, cheaper way is to take the law enforcement division for motor carrier division over at MDOT (the Mississippi Department of Transportation) — part of it is the Highway Patrol — move the rest of it from MDOT to the Highway Patrol. We have 40 highway patrolmen right now that are involved in motor carrier enforcement. If we could move MDOT’s program, we could save a lot of money at MDOT, because they’ve got about 200 people in that program and the Highway Patrol would have a fraction of that. And we’d be able to take those 40 highway patrolmen and move them from truck enforcement to regular Highway Patrol duties…. In my mind, MDOT should have nothing but the weigh stations.”
AP: The early budget outline by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee would not put enough money aside for Mississippi’s annual debt payments. Do you think businesses will look askance at that?
Barbour: “Sure, they’re going to look askance at it — not because they think we won’t pay our debt. One of the reason Legislatures have historically underfunded debt service is because they know you have to pay it…. In fact, under state law, the treasurer can go into the treasury and take money from virtually anywhere to pay our debt service…. I mean, it looks bad, it wouldn’t set well with people, but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to pay our debt. It means that the Legislature’s going to appropriate more money than we’ve got ’cause they know we’re going to pay this debt. We’ve got no choice.”
AP: A bit of a budget game?
Barbour: “It is a budget game, for sure.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.