Barbour says federal budgets need cuts

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour withdrew from the 2012 presidential race last week before ever officially entering it. During his flirtation with a national campaign, the Republican was outspoken about the federal budget — and that probably won’t end just because he’s taking a pass on the race.

He told conservatives in early caucus and primary states that he wanted to slash federal spending, even for defense programs that many Republicans hold dear.

As Mississippi governor the past seven years, Barbour has focused intently on controlling state spending. Along with legislators, he has used tens of billions of federal dollars for everything from Medicaid to Hurricane Katrina recovery. At the same time, he has continually criticized government as a voracious consumer of whatever money’s available, a beast that should be starved by lowering taxes.

National audiences might’ve seen it as a case of saying one thing and doing another, but Barbour told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he sees no contradiction.

He said federal budgets need to be cut, and Washington should give states more control over federal money for programs such as Medicaid, a government program that provides health coverage for the needy. Because every state is different, governors and state lawmakers might have ideas that would work in Mississippi, for example, but not in Massachusetts.

“The idea that people in Congress love our constituents but governors don’t love our constituents is baloney,” Barbour told AP.

The 63-year-old said he decided not to run for president because he didn’t have the requisite “fire in the belly” for a 10-year commitment — two years to run for president, then, in theory, eight to serve.

Barbour built a thick Rolodex as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997. He was an A-list Washington lobbyist before returning home and winning the governorship in 2003. He chaired the Republican Governors Association from June 2009 through November 2010, and gathered plenty of political favors by helping elect several GOP governors. During his run-up to a possible presidential campaign, he retained consultants and visited states with important early presidential contests — New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, Florida.

“I’m against raising taxes,” Barbour said in the recent AP interview. “Raising the taxes is the enemy of controlling spending.”

It’s been a familiar refrain during his tenure as governor.

While Mississippi’s income tax rates have remained unchanged under Barbour, he signed two cigarette tax increases into law in 2009. He also persuaded lawmakers that year to revive and re-enact a hospital tax to help pay for Medicaid.

Barbour pushed legislators to build up Mississippi government’s financial reserves when the state and national economies were healthy during his first term. When state revenues dipped during the recession, he sliced hundreds of millions of dollars from already tight budgets.

Like governors in most states, Barbour works within the confines of annual balanced-budget requirements.

Lethargic state tax collections forced him to cut Mississippi’s budget five times during the fiscal year that ended last June 30. The cuts balanced the books by taking the state-funded portion of the budget from about $6 billion to $5.5 billion.

The state Department of Education said schools eliminated about 2,000 jobs during the current academic year, including more than 700 jobs for certified teachers. That represented about 2 percent of all certified teachers.

School districts “didn’t have to do any layoffs,” Barbour said last month in Jackson.

“If they lay somebody off, it’s because they thought they needed laying off, and there will be very few exceptions for that,” Barbour said. “Tight budget times are good times for right-sizing, and I’m sure a lot of school districts took advantage of it.”

With the presidential primaries still taking shape, it’s possible that fellow Republicans will turn to Barbour for advice. Based on his record, they should expect him to recommend an everything-on-the-table approach to cutting federal budgets.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.