Barbour readies his 2011 budget proposal

JACKSON – One year ago, Gov. Haley Barbour released his controversial budget proposal that included recommendations for school district consolidation, university mergers and the closure of mental health facilities, including the North Mississippi State Hospital in Tupelo.
Barbour said such dramatic action was needed to deal with the state’s bleakest budget picture since the 1930s Great Depression. But those proposals gained no traction during the 2010 session or even from a special commission Barbour appointed to study school district consolidation.
On Monday, the Republican governor is set to release his budget proposal for the 2011 Legislature to consider for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“He is going to recommend the same old stuff that nobody will vote for – not even Republicans in an election year,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, a member of the Legislative Budget Committee, which also is developing a proposal for the full Legislature to consider in 2011.
“He is frying other fish,” he said, referring to Barbour’s involvement in national politics. “This is not much interest to him anymore.”
The 2011 session will be Barbour’s last. He will be responsible for releasing another budget proposal in the fall of 2011, but because he is prevented from running for a third term as governor, he will not be in office to advocate for it during the 2012 legislative session.
Many speculate that he will run for president in 2012, and the amount of time he has spent out of the state in recent months – helping Republican candidates during the recently completed 2010 elections – does nothing to quiet that talk.
Barbour, primarily through spokespeople, has reiterated that he can fulfill all of his gubernatorial duties, even when out of state, by using technology.
Last week when he met, as mandated by law, with the Legislative Budget Committee to agree on the amount of state tax collections that will be available to appropriate during the 2011 session, he took the unusual step of doing so by teleconference.
Barbour’s fight
While Barbour might not have been at the meeting in person, he made it clear that he would fight to hold down spending in his final year in office.
In October, Barbour sent out a letter to agency heads asking them to submit “recommendations on how your agency can operate at funding 15 percent below” last year’s levels. “Eliminating unnecessary or inefficient programs, merging existing divisions or agencies and streamlining operations may be suggested.”
The response to Barbour’s proposed 15 percent cut was dire.
Ed LeGrand, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, said, “Before a cut of this magnitude is made, I think we will want some detailed input from state policy makers on how they would like such a system to look, because it’s not going to look much like the one we currently have.”
Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell cited the elimination of meat plant inspections as a way to offset a 15 percent cut.
Agencies fight
Most state agencies already have had to deal with cuts of 10 percent or more during the past two years. Many state agencies, including education and mental health, already have eliminated positions and furloughed employees to deal with budget cuts.
For instance, local school districts have eliminated more than 1,000 positions, including more than 700 teaching positions.
Most do not believe Barbour’s budget proposal will call for cuts anywhere near 15 percent.
House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said recently, “I don’t think we will have to cut the budget the 15 percent the governor is talking about. That is $750 million. We’re not going to cut $750 million. We won’t have to.”
At last week’s meeting with legislative leaders, Barbour referred to cuts in the high single digits.
Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said, “There is still a need to do some more belt-tightening to live within our means. That is the responsible thing to do.”
Whether that will include more calls for university mergers, school district consolidation or other far-reaching proposals will be known Monday when Barbour unveils his budget.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau