By Bill Minor
JACKSON – If we are to believe George Schloegal, about the only thing Gov. Haley Barbour can’t do is walk on water. Or, maybe he can, because Schloegal tells us in his 9/4/11 letter that Barbour was “carrying the cross” to save the state’s retirement system.
For background: Schloegal, now mayor of Gulfport, is former president of the Coast’s Hancock Bank. He took pen in hand to chastise Clarion-Ledger Editorial Director David Hampton for daring to criticize Barbour for playing politics in belatedly naming a commission (which Schloegal heads) to study financial solvency of the state Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).
Never in 63 years of chronicling the political scene in Mississippi have I seen such fawning praise heaped upon a governor by a constituent as Schloegal lavished on Barbour in his letter. The PERS study commission, wrote Schloegal, was only another instance when Haley demonstrated “courageous leadership,” just as he has always done when the need arises. Say what?
How about, for instance, Barbour’s knee-jerk rejection in 2009 of $60 million in President Obama’s federal stimulus to extend unemployment benefits for thousands of Mississippi’s workers who had been thrown out of their jobs and couldn’t find another?
Here was a chance to put food on the table for thousands of Mississippi’s jobless and Haley said no, using the tired cliche about “strings attached.” Actually, only slight changes in the state’s rigid laws for jobless eligibility benefits needed to be made. It should be remembered that the unemployment insurance system is a federally-mandated trust fund program dating back to the depression era. If Obama weren’t so conciliatory, states could have been required to use the jobless money.
Since early in his tenure as governor, Barbour has set out to undermine unemployment benefits for the state’s working class, beginning in 2004 when he wiped the virtually autonomous three-member state Employment Security Commission off the books, replacing it with an agency directly under him. Established way back in 1940, the three-member commission designated one seat to represent employees who historically came from organized labor.
In 2005, Barbour reduced the payroll tax employers pay into the Unemployment Trust Fund, but refused to raise the weekly unemployment benefits, which are the lowest in the nation. He later blocked legislative efforts to increase the weekly maximum benefits cap, finally accepting a small graduated increase in 2008 that temporarily tied next-lowest Alabama until that state raised theirs. Now Mississippi’s weekly maximum at $235 is still only one-half of the highest average salary of the unemployed.
Back to the PERS study group that Schloegal says was a “bold decision” by Barbour to “swiftly” confront the patently under-funded retirement system: Months ago I wrote that the PERS trust fund had lost some $12 billion in the Great Recession of 2008-09. State Treasurer Tate Reeves, the lone permanent member of the PERS board, in August won the lieutenant governor job, running as the “taxpayers’ watchdog.” However, while he was seeing the trust fund take a huge hit two years ago, Reeves did nothing to loudly warn Barbour, his fellow Republican, that serious fiscal repairs needed to be made to protect public employees’ retirement checks.
Now Schloegal and his clean-up crew of suits is going to fix PERS, while Reeves sails off into the sunset as Lite Guv? Gives thousands of the state’s public servants a comforting feeling, doesn’t it?
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.