BOBBY HARRISON: Barbour rules with state Senate’s eager acquiesence

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour has proposed less money for education each year he has been in office than has been finally passed by the Legislature.
In 2007, an election year, the Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of most of the basics of operating local school districts, was fully funded for only the second time.
That year Barbour’s original budget did not fully fund the education program. But after it became apparent a vast majority of both chambers of the Legislature supported full funding and planned to vote for full funding, he acquiesced.
As the 2011 session of the Legislature cranks up, Barbour’s final as governor, much has been made of how the Yazoo City Republican has redefined the role of governor. He has made what was believed to be a relatively weak office, compared with the authority of the Legislature, a powerful one.
He has done it in part because of his knowledge of state government and because of his unique communication skills. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove equaled or bettered Barbour in terms of knowledge of state government, but could not match Barbour’s communication skills.
But then few people can.
What separated Barbour, though, from other governors, is the power the Senate ceded to him. During his tenure, Republicans in the Legislature in general and in particular in the Senate, where they hold key leadership positions, have walked in lockstep with the governor on most occasions.
The Democratic House leadership has not.
House Democrats, led by Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, have not been as well-oiled or efficient as Barbour, but they have had some successes.
Education funding would most likely be the primary example of those successes. House Democrats have forced Barbour to spend more on education each year he has been in office than he and the Senate leadership wanted to spend.
In general, not as much has been spent on education as proposed by House Democrats, but more than proposed by Barbour.
The cigarette tax is another example where persistence from House Democrats finally paid off for them. After years of a cigarette tax increase passing the House and being killed in the Senate, with Barbour’s blessings, the governor could no longer hold back public support for raising the tax.
Finally in 2009, a 50-cent increase in the cigarette tax to 68 cents per pack was approved.
There are numerous other examples where House Democrats were able to hold the line to halt or alter Barbour’s legislative agenda.
Sure, overall, Barbour has been effective in the legislative process. He has never had a veto overridden. Much of his agenda has been put in place. But Barbour, like most politicians, has been forced to compromise.
While he has had some exciting successes in attracting new industries to the state, Mississippi’s unemployment rate has remained consistently above the national average.
In 2008, McCoy was elected speaker by a razor thin 62-60 margin. If McCoy’s opponent, Jeff Smith of Columbus, had won, the history of the state would have been different.
There is perhaps no bigger ally in the Legislature of the governor than Smith.
A Smith victory in 2008 would have given Barbour the same clear sailing in the House that he enjoyed in the Senate. In short, Barbour would not have faced any obstacles.
As the 2011 session begins, the governor’s last, it is worth noting that slim McCoy victory in 2008 assured Barbour would be forced to compromise.
Some might think that is a bad thing. Others probably would argue a certain level of checks and balances is a good thing.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or call (601) 353-3119.