Barbour: Budget battle about future

TUPELO – Gov. Haley Barbour says he is undertaking the current budget fight to prevent additional cuts and tax increases after he leaves office.
The Republican governor, who is in his final year in office, conceded, “I am not going to be here. For me, I could spend it all. That would be the easy way out. But I didn’t like what I was left with. We owe it to taxpayers of Mississippi to leave it in much better shape that I found it in.”
Barbour spoke to the Daily Journal editorial board Monday about the current budget impasse in the Legislature and a host of other issues. He also reiterated that he would make a final decision in late April about whether to run for president.
The Legislature, as it has in each of Barbour’s previous seven years as governor, failed to meet the deadline to pass a budget.
While Barbour spoke of leaving the budget situation in better shape, he acknowledged that whether it’s his budget that passes or the House version, which he criticized, the state will spend hundreds of millions of dollars of one-time money on recurring expenses, just as when he took office.
And there will actually be less in total reserves than when he took office, since there was more than $500 million in a tobacco trust fund that has been spent down in the years since.
Barbour said that under his budget proposal, about $400 million in one-time money would be spent and about $209 million in reserves would be maintained. He said with modest growth of $100 million in state tax collections, that would leave the 2012 Legislature a manageable budget hole of about $100 million.
House leaders maintain they are leaving as much or more than Barbour in reserves.
House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said education from the kindergarten to university level, which already has been cut $400 million in the past four years, cannot absorb the additional cuts Barbour is proposing.
Both Barbour at the editorial board meeting and the House leadership at the Capitol argued they already have compromised on the budget and do not intend to yield any further.
“I have given $47 million out of the spirit of compromise,” Barbour said. “When the public sees what we are doing … We are spending hundreds of millions that will not be here next year.”
On the House floor Monday, Brown said, “We are going to maintain our position.” Brown said the House already has yielded about $43 million from its original position.
Both sides agree that the biggest differences are on education and mental health.
Essentially, both the House and the Senate passed legislation to provide level funding to the local school districts during the difficult budget year. But Barbour, supported by the Senate leadership, wants to cut $30 million of that amount in areas like teacher supply funds.
Barbour said the schools have federal funds approved last year by Congress to tap into if the local school districts need to make up the $30 million in state cuts.
In addition, Barbour wants to provide $232 million or $17 million less for the Department of Mental Health. Barbour argued Monday that more emphasis should be placed on community-based, non-institutional care of the mentally ill and that some of the state’s mental health hospitals should be closed.
He previously has advocated closing some of the facilities such as North Missisissippi State Hospital in Tupelo.
On Monday, he said he would prefer the state Mental Health Board decide which facilities to close, but “they definitely need to be closed. We want to have the best facilities left open and the ones that are not the best facilities closed. That is a decision for the Mental Health. Right now their desire is to close nothing – just keep doing what we have been doing.”
The governor also advocates cutting the budgets for the so-called agriculture units at Mississippi State University and Alcorn State, such as the Division of Forestry, the Extension Service and Veterinary School, $5.4 million to a total of $70 million.
Barbour said money could be saved by consolidating those operations into the Mississippi State University administration.
But House Agriculture Chairman Greg Ward, D-Ripley, said the cuts could jeopardize millions of dollars in research grant funds if state matching funds are lost.
Barbour and Davis on behalf of the Senate are proposing a total general fund budget of $5.45 billion, or roughly $58 million less than the House is proposing.
“We are going to continue to have dialogue,” Davis said.
“In the grand scheme of things, it is not that great, but where there are differences they are significant.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.garrison@journalinc.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal