Barbour defends budget cuts to statewide audience

JACKSON — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said state agencies and schools should not expect to receive everything they request as legislators start working on next year’s budget.

Barbour told a statewide audience Tuesday night that state tax collections have fallen short of expectations each of the past 12 months, and there are few signs of improvement.

“The likelihood is the budget situation is going to get worse before it gets better,” Barbour said during a half-hour call-in show on Mississippi Public Broadcasting TV and radio.

He defended his decision to cut nearly $172 million from the $6 billion budget this month. The current state fiscal year started July 1. Barbour said it’s easier for program directors and school administrators to save money early in the fiscal year rather than late.

Barbour’s cuts amounted to about 2.9 percent of the overall state budget, but some programs were untouched. All levels of education, from kindergarten through graduate school, were cut about 5 percent. But Barbour said that even with the cuts, education is still receiving a record amount of money because of the federal stimulus program.

He said Mississippi spends about 60 percent of its budget on elementary and secondary schools, community colleges and universities.

“It’s not possible to make meaningful savings while keeping education untouchable,” Barbour said.

Still, Barbour was criticized Tuesday night by some callers, who were not required to give their full names on the air.

A caller from Oxford said Mississippi has a regressive tax structure that hurts the poor. The caller said in a state with low standardized test scores, it’s wrong to cut education funding.

Barbour, a Republican who took office in January 2004, disagreed with the caller’s assessment of the tax structure.

The governor appointed a commission last year to study Mississippi’s tax structure. The group of business people, professors and financial professionals said Mississippi should reduce business taxes to help spur job creation.

“I’m going to stay focused on that same path that I’ve been on from the beginning,” Barbour said.

A caller from Starkville asked Barbour why the state doesn’t require patients on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy and disabled, to pay part of their medical expenses.

Barbour said the federal government will allow Mississippi to set co-payments for doctor’s visits and other services but won’t allow the state to enforce such payments. Because of that, Barbour said, some Medicaid patients have no out-of-pocket expenses.

A legislative committee holds hearings next week to begin working on a budget for the fiscal year that begins next summer. The full House and Senate is scheduled to vote on the spending plan in the spring.

Barbour said state government agencies will have to do more work with less money.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press