SID SALTER: Big budget holes will challenge Barbour's 'ironclad' control

By Sid Salter

What state legislators and Gov. Haley Barbour agree on headed into the 2011 regular session of the Mississippi Legislature is that times are hard and the budget process will be long and unpleasant.
Beyond that basic premise, there’s a wide chasm of thought on how best to traverse the narrow path that evolves when the state’s revenue engine is broken while every politician from the statehouse to the courthouses is slated to stand for re-election save one – Haley Barbour.
Barbour’s term-limited as governor and many believe he has his sights set on much higher office. Regardless, the final year of any governor’s term is legacy time – the time when that governor starts thinking about how he’s remembered and that’s exponentially more important when that governor is also being touted as presidential timber.
Barbour has been “against raising anybody’s taxes” since waging his first gubernatorial campaign back in 2003 and that’s not likely to change in 2011. He wants to protect that legacy – which he doesn’t see as tarnished by the undeniable tax hikes that have taken place in the state on his watch including tobacco taxes – and bolster it by leaving the state with a surplus like the late Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice. In this economy, that’s a tall order.
Barbour came into office criticizing the “$700 million budget hole” he said was created by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Now, it is Barbour who is dealing with at least a $400 million “budget hole” which may require some of the same fiscal techniques Musgrove used to fill the budget “hole” on his watch.
Legislators who will be facing the voters in 2011 know the difficulty of simultaneously cutting state agency budgets, laying off state workers, cutting education funding and pushing tax hikes from the state level to the local level and getting re-elected. That knowledge is not limited to Democratic legislators alone.
Simply put, here’s the agenda for the 2011 legislative session. Barbour wants to craft a FY 2012 budget with no new taxes that leaves a substantial surplus of at least $100 million in the state’s coffers.
Lawmakers facing re-election – including some Republicans – know that there’s enough special funds, fund balances, contingency and reserve funds and other “pots of money” scattered around state government – as longtime budget wizard state Sen. Jack Gordon calls them – to avoid crafting a FY 2012 budget that’s cut as deeply as Barbour seems to be willing to cut it to achieve his budget goals.
That will be the major impasse of the 2011 legislative session. Resolving that impasse will test Barbour’s heretofore ironclad control of the Senate and the ability of House Republicans to keep rural white Democrats voting with them against the House leadership. This session will be Barbour’s toughest session to “win” his agenda.
Sid Salter is Perspective editor of the Clarion-Ledger. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.