OPINION: Issues beyond control are requiring state budget cuts

JACKSON – In politics, there are those always looking to place blame.
Some, for instance, blame the Mississippi Legislature for the budget cuts Gov. Haley Barbour is making. They reason that if the Legislature had not spent too much money earlier this year Barbour would not have been forced to make budget cuts in September – less than three months into the new fiscal year – and would not have been preparing to make additional cuts in the coming days.
As it turned out, the Legislature did appropriate more money than the state is collecting in tax revenue, thus forcing the governor to make the cuts. But the fact is that Barbour did not object to the amount of money appropriated by the Legislature and had an active role in developing the budget.
The amount of money appropriated was based on the revenue estimate recommended to legislative leaders and to the governor by the state’s financial experts. They are state Economist Phil Pepper, Treasurer Tate Reeves; Tax Commission Chairman Ed Morgan, a representative of the Legislative Budget Committee Staff, normally Robert Sumrall; and Fiscal Officer Kevin Upchurch.
Upchurch and Morgan are Barbour appointees. The governor has no greater political ally than Treasurer Reeves.
To say legislators were being fiscally irresponsible, appropriating money they knew the state would not have and forcing the governor to be the bad guy and make cuts, is disingenuous. After all, the influence Barbour has among the group of financial experts who made the recommendation on the amount of money that would be available to appropriate is substantial.
It should be pointed out that Barbour is not blaming the Legislature for appropriating too much money. Thus far, it appears legislative leaders and Barbour are on essentially the same page in dealing with the current budget woes.
That is far different than in early 2000 when similar budget woes cropped up during the gubernatorial administration of Ronnie Musgrove.
Musgrove also was forced to make cuts. But that time, he did say legislators were appropriating too much money and urged them not to do it.
As with the current budget problems, the Legislature appropriated the amount of money recommended by the state’s financial experts. But unlike this time, where Barbour also accepted the recommendation made by the experts, Musgrove did not. Musgrove said the financial experts were being too optimistic. Musgrove ended up essentially vetoing the budget.
But the Legislature, led by then-Speaker Tim Ford and then-Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, overrode Musgrove in a matter of minutes with little debate. At it turned out, Musgrove was right, and he had to make budget cuts later in the year.
This budget crisis is different. Barbour had substantial say in crafting the budget. The Senate leadership of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Appropriations Committee Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, was conversing with Barbour during every step of the budget negotiations with House leaders.
If the governor objected to any part of the proposal, so did the Senate. As a matter of fact, there were times when the Senate leaders reneged on agreements with House leaders because Barbour objected.
The budget being cut by Barbour is one he played a vital role in developing.
And that’s not to say Barbour and the legislative leaders made a mistake in developing that budget. It was based on the best recommendations of those assigned that duty by state law.
The fact is that the state is experiencing historically bad revenue collections – worse than most anyone could have imagined. And it’s not the governor’s fault nor the Legislature’s fault. Just as in the early 2000s, it wasn’t Ronnie Musgrove’s fault.
It is worth mentioning, though, that in defeating Musgrove in 2003 Barbour did place that blame on him and did so again in 2008 when Republican Roger Wicker of Tupelo defeated Musgrove for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Trent Lott.

Contact Journal Capitol Bureau chief Bobby Harrison by e-mail at bobbyharrison@djournal.com or call him at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal