BOBBY HARRISON: Barbour forced to change course on one-time money

JACKSON – When Haley Barbour leaves office in January 2012, he will go down as the biggest user of one-time money of any governor in the history of the state.
Funny how things work. After all, the Republican Barbour assailed Democratic incumbent Ronnie Musgrove for his use of one-time money to fund recurring state budget expenses. It was one of Barbour’s main lines of attack during his successful 2003 campaign when he defeated the incumbent.
In 2008, Republican Roger Wicker of Tupelo used the same line of attack in defeating Musgrove in a bid for the United States Senate.
Will Wicker will issue a statement criticizing Barbour for the use of one-time money? Not likely.
But using the definition of one-time money cited by Barbour in 2003, the Republican governor signed budget bills this year spending about $850 million of one-time money and about the same amount last year. Look for hundreds of millions in one-time money to be used again during the 2011 legislative session to fund the state budget.
The most one-time money used for recurring expenses during Musgrove’s tenure, according to information compiled by the Legislative Budget Committee, was a little less than $700 million during the 2003 session.
The term one-time money can be a little deceiving. It can mean using reserve funds or using a one-time cash windfall, such as the settlement of a lawsuit in the state’s favor by the attorney general.
And, as Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, pointed out last year, not all one-time money is created equally. For instance, state law says the Legislature can appropriate only 98 percent of its projected revenue. In recent years, the Legislature has changed the law to appropriate the full 100 percent, adding about $90 million to the amount available to spend. That revenue is recurring, but since the law must be changed to use it, it is considered one-time money.
Another example is that in Barbour’s first term the Legislature and governor agreed to take $240 million out of the Tobacco Trust Fund to fill a Medicaid deficit. The legislation included a provision that the money be paid back to the trust fund – $38 million annually.
But each year since then the Legislature has passed a bill signed by the governor to delay that repayment, resulting in an additional $38 million to spend. That is considered one-time money.
Essentially, when a change in law is needed to spend the funds, those funds are considered one-time monies.
One-time money also fits the definition of the hundreds of millions in federal stimulus funds that have been used to plug budget holes.
That was the definition used by Barbour in 2003 to make the case that the state, under the Democratic governor, had a $700 million budget deficit. Using that definition, the Republican Barbour has a bigger budget hole now and will most likely have one when he leaves office.
But in fairness to the governor, he has resisted, rightly or wrongly, the efforts of many to use even more one-time money to fund recurring expenses. If he had the only say in the matter, less one-time money might be used.
And in fairness to the governor, he is not responsible for the economic woes that have beset not only Mississippi and the United States, but the world. Those economic struggles have resulted in a historic downturn in state tax collections, causing the budget woes.
Sill, Barbour has not resisted the use of one-time funds in the state budget. Even before the economic downturn, the state, under Barbour’s leadership, was using some one-time funds – as defined by him in 2003.
The governor has rightly recognized that without the use of some one-time funds, state budget cuts that are already substantial, would be devastating to schools, health care, and indeed all of state government. There is no debate – zilch – about whether one-time money should be used to shore up the cash-strapped state budget. The only debate has been over how much one-time money to use.
The governor and others have recognized that the functions of state government are more important than politics.
What does that make Barbour, considering his line of attack in 2003?
Well, it makes him a politician – of course. And all politicians, from Barack Obama to Haley Barbour find that governing often requires concessions that differ from their campaign rhetoric.
Political leaders do have the right to change their minds when the circumstances dictate. Consistency is not always the highest virtue.

Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal