OPINION: Barbour economic record dims with job losses, funds refusal

JACKSON – When Haley Barbour defeated Ronnie Musgrove for governor in 2003, he pounded Musgrove as not having been a good
steward of the state’s economy in the previous four years. Specifically, Barbour accused Musgrove of losing 30,000 jobs in his four-year administration.
Significantly, Musgrove’s term was marked by the 2001-2003 recession and the impact of the newly-enacted North America Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA) which sent thousands of American manufacturing jobs overseas.
Now, after five years that Barbour has been in office, the nation has slipped into a deep recession that began in late 2007. Let’s take a job-loss reading and see how well Barbour has done in managing the state’s economy.
In January, 2004 when Barbour took office, Mississippi had 1,219,106 people employed and 80,800 unemployed. In January, 2009, the state had 1,190,100 employed and 121,598 unemployed. Was that progress? Obviously it wasn’t. Some 29,000 jobs had flown out the window.
Under Barbour, Mississippi’s unemployment rate hit 10.5 percent in July (the highest since the 1980s) and only fell to 9.5 percent in August because 28,000 people dropped out of the labor force. That didn’t mean more people had found jobs but that they had stopped looking for work.
Two weeks ago, Barbour ordered $172 million in budget cuts for state agencies – falling hardest on education from K-12 through universities – because of revenue shortfalls and warned that more cuts were in store because of a dire tax collection forecast and a shortfall of $350 million in view of persistent unemployment.
Mention of unemployment raises a sticky subject. Why in heaven did Barbour turn down $56.1 million in federal stimulus grants to benefit unemployed workers that the state was offered under President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act? Not only would that have put a great deal of money in circulation in the state’s sick economy (and produced state revenue), it would have helped thousands of struggling Mississippi families whose breadwinner is out of work.
More facts: Mississippi has the lowest unemployment benefits in the country; state economic researchers say the jobless rate among black workers is already some 10 percent higher than white workers.
To qualify for ARRA unemployment grants, states simply needed to make slight reforms in their unemployment insurance laws if their laws were not already in compliance. One part of the ARRA funding stipulated that coverage of workers include the most recent work base period and another (with four options) provide coverage relating to part-time work. Twenty-seven states did enact necessary law changes, but not Mississippi. Barbour’s alleged reasoning was that sometime in the future the state might have to raise payroll taxes to bolster the unemployment trust fund. Actually, ARRA provided extra funding for four years to offset any fund losses.
Governors of only a handful of states refused chunks of ARRA funds at the outset. Two of Barbour’s refusal confederates (both Republicans) were Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, noted for his Argentine firecracker mistress, and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who made news talking about secession (didn’t we try that?) from the U.S.
A nationwide map prepared by the non-profit National Employment Law Project, showed only seven states had declined to take action on ARRA incentive funding legislation as of June 16. After Barbour let it be known when ARRA was passed in February that he opposed to making any unemployment law reforms to qualify for the $56.1 million in jobless stimulus funds, the 2009 Legislature failed to act on necessary changes before it adjourned.
Two employment study groups have said that counties in Mississippi hard-hit by unemployment will be denied of $120.6 million that could have been turned over in economic activity by acceptance of the stimulus funds.
Was Barbour’s refusal of jobless benefit funds from the Obama stimulus package in reality political gamesmanship? If so, then thousands of Mississippians are the losers.

Bill Minor, a nationally honored journalist, has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at PO Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor