State elections leading to a new governor are still 15 months away, but it’s not too soon to admit how badly I underestimated Haley Barbour.
Seven years ago, I (joined by many newspapering colleagues in Mississippi) predicted the Republican who had been so successful on the national stage would meet his match when if he got elected and had to deal with the Mississippi Legislature.
I’d seen it before. Kirk Fordice, the only Republican to serve as the state’s chief executive during the entire 20th Century, had, to put it succinctly, a commanding personality. But the Legislature slapped him silly.
Although Fordice was a fiscal conservative’s fiscal conservative, state programs and spending expanded exponentially during his tenure (1992-2000) as did state employment, which he had pledged to reduce. A tough-on-crime social conservative, too, Fordice famously pledged to make Mississippi the “capital of capital punishment,” yet there was not a single execution during his eight years in office.
Fordice did score a few wins, most notably coaxing the lawmakers to allocate only 98 percent of each year’s budget estimate. That cushion or “rainy day fund” is saving our bacon this year and, thanks to Barbour who pushed back against lawmakers who wanted to spend it all this year, will make a big difference for the next two years, too.
My glaring miscalculation, though, centered on taxes.
Incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove was not a bad governor. But the economy soured and Barbour campaigned by wrapping the looming deficit around the Batesville Democrat’s neck, denying him a second term.
Victory meant Barbour took office in the middle of a fiscal year where allocations exceeded expected revenue by about $700 million. It had been Musgrove’s problem, but it passed to the new governor.
Fordice had also gotten the job in similarly financial times and legislators back then, also starting new four-year terms, dealt with it by increasing the state’s general sales tax “temporarily” from 6 percent to 7 percent. As might be expected, Fordice vetoed the tax increase, but the House and Senate overrode that veto and, as we all know, the “temporary” increase has now been in effect for 18 years.
So it was only natural to believe that lawmakers would bulldoze Barbour in the same way. That was my prediction, but it was wrong. Not only did lawmakers not pass a tax increase during Barbour’s first year, they accepted Barbour’s plan to bring state spending in line with state revenue that year — and every year since.
The House has good and well-meaning leaders — including the knowledgeable and persuasive Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson — but even if the House passed a measure the Democratic leadership favored, it went to a Senate where Barbour has been able to get his way time and time again.
The years of struggling over tobacco taxes are, perhaps, the best example of this governor’s skills. At 18 cents, Mississippi’s tax on a pack of cigarettes was among the nation’s lowest — almost amounting to a subsidy. Every year, the House would pass an increase and it would ultimately fail. In one year, in the face of a well-coordinated effort by doctors and other health advocates who wanted a higher tax as a disincentive to smoking, the House and Senate passed increases.
In fact, both chambers passed the increase by margins sufficient to override a veto. Normally, a governor would see that as a slam-dunk and acquiesce. But Barbour, in the face of being labeled a tool of the tobacco industry, vetoed the increase nonetheless. And sure enough, three or four senators who had supported the tax a week before suddenly realized they opposed it.
After being elected to a second term, Barbour formed a tax study commission. In due course, the commission recommended a tobacco tax increase and Barbour agreed to it — but on his terms and timetable, not the Legislature’s.
This much is clear, objectively, and won’t require an apology in a few years: In Mississippi, the Constitution gives all the cards to the Legislature. Governors make speeches and lead parades. Lawmakers manage the state’s income and decide where to spend the money. That’s the script — or it was until Haley Barbour was elected.
It remains to be seen — and won’t be known until January 2012 — whether the next governor will have anything close to the political skills Barbour brought to the job. Doubtless, members of the Legislature who understand how things really work, are salivating at the prospect of getting their mojo back.
In the meantime, Barbour has one regular legislative session left. So here’s a safer prediction: He’ll get his way.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.