JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour stood at the podium in the press room of his Sillers Building offices Monday answering questions for about an hour on his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.
He stayed until all the questions were asked by members of the media. Usually, the governor’s staff ends his news conferences before all the questions are asked.
But not this time, as the governor explained a budget proposal that includes university mergers, school district consolidation, the closing of mental health centers, and the elimination of some state agencies.
In his deep Southern drawl, he explained, that if legislators “don’t like this, come up with another way, a better way. Nothing about this is good or is going to be popular.”
Barbour says his budget proposal takes the necessary steps to deal with budget shortfalls for the next two years caused by historically low tax collections during the current economic downturn.
Barbour says he did not run for office in 2003 and for re-election in 2007 to take on what would be a dramatic restructuring of state government should his plan succeed during the upcoming 2010 session of the Mississippi Legislature.
“This (economic downturn) is something I did not foresee just like I didn’t foresee Katrina,” he said. “This is my second big, bad storm.”
Barbour’s remedy for his second storm is being prescribed on his way out of office. For most legislators, the remedy for the big, bad storm is occurring as they prepare to run again in 2011.
Two key players if Barbour is to be successful in pushing his dramatic (his word) proposal through the Legislature will be Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo. In past years, the two have essentially hitched their political wagon to Barbour.
Nunnelee is challenging Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville next year. Though yet to announce, it is generally believed that Bryant will vie to follow his fellow Republican in the Governor’s Mansion in 2011.
The budget chaos is occurring just at a point where Bryant and Nunnelee, particularly, have the most to lose. And Barbour’s budget proposal is rife with political pitfalls.
The House leadership might support some of Barbour’s proposals. They might be forced through the legislative process to accept some of his other proposals.
But the governor has no natural political allies amongst the Democratic leadership of the House. Why would House leaders take the lead on Barbour’s controversial proposals after they have been doubled-teamed by the Senate leadership and governor for more than six years?
If Barbour’s budget plan is to pass, the Senate leadership must take the initiative.
Does Nunnelee want to do take the lead in closing down North Mississippi State Hospital in his backyard, as the governor plans, or closing down a mental health crisis center in Corinth in a key area of the 1st Congressional District where he will be competing with Childers?
Does Bryant want to take lead in consolidating schools as he prepares to run for governor?
After Barbour released his budget proposal, Bryant said, “I will continue to work with the Senate leadership and will give the governor’s budget recommendation the utmost consideration. By making the tough decisions now to control spending, we can prepare for a brighter future for our state.”
When asked if he endorsed any of the governor’s budget, Nunnelee said, “I am not ready to accept any individual recommendation of the governor. What I think the governor has done is give us a baseline for discussion.”
The governor also has given Nunnelee and Bryant, as well as all legislators, and indeed all Mississippians, some tough choices to make.
The governor would say the choices are not of his making, but of the big, bad economic storm.
Contact Journal Capitol Bureau chief Bobby Harrison by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (601) 353-3119.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal