BILL CRAWFORD: Barbour drops ‘gifts’ on new GOP leaders

By Bill Crawford

With the New Year come a new Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House, new Republican committee chairpersons, new or bigger Republican legislative majorities, and many new Republican legislators. As they celebrate, eh, I mean buckle down to their new roles, they will find three last minute “gifts” from their outgoing governor and political godfather.
No, I don’t mean the important and useful messages Haley Barbour delivered in his three December “values” speeches. The gifts I refer to are his move to allow offshore drilling in the Gulf, his final “smaller government” budget, and his PERS Study Commission recommendations.
In 2004, Barbour directed the Mississippi Development Authority to develop regulations for seismic testing 10 to 12 miles off the coastline. It was the first step toward leasing state controlled waters for drilling. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shelved this initiative. Barbour unshelved it last month and MDA issued the regulations.
Barbour’s position should come as no surprise. One of his major goals as governor has been to make Mississippi an energy self-sufficient state. But, with environmentalists and many Coast officials screaming, how will this gift be received by the new folks?
In his budget, Barbour once again calls for the Legislature to allow state agencies two-year exemptions from State Personnel Board regulations in order to “right-size,” i.e., streamline, their workforces. He also proposed, again, consolidating school districts; merging universities; reducing tax-dollar support for school athletics; eliminating tax-dollar support for community college sports; and closing four mental health centers and six crisis centers. All of these programs have strong constituencies and champions in the Legislature. So, how will the new folks deal with this gift?
The recommendations impacting the strongest constituency are those from the governor’s PERS Study Commission. They seek to get PERS finances back in order. How will the new folks manage this sensitive issue?
In 2004, many on the Coast opposed offshore drilling, but the Legislature passed Barbour’s bill. It did ban all drilling inside the barrier islands. MDA’s announcement has galvanized opponents again. Prior Legislatures, with Democrats in control of the House, have ignored Barbour’s smaller government recommendations. Many legislators from both parties pledged to leave PERS alone during the recent elections.
So what will new Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn, and the new GOP majorities do? Bryant has supported Barbour’s overall energy plan in the past and energy proponent Glenn McCullough chaired his economic development transition committee. All three leaders have spoken out for smaller government. But, all three have been cautious about PERS.
How ironic will it be if Mississippi’s new Republican leaders shy away from the final recommendations of the Republican leader who paved the way for their ascendance?
Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.