OPINION: ‘Mighty Haley’ swings at the kudzu of state government

Is Gov. Haley Barbour just another “mighty Casey” who will strike out on government reform and budget cuts? Or, is he a rare clutch hitter?
A little retrospection may help. What do the Bilbo Joint Committee (1918), Conner Reorganization Committee (1933), Wright Reorganization Committee (1950), Williams Task Force on Government Efficiency and Economy (1971), Allain Government Reorganization Act (1984), and Mabus Executive Branch Reorganization Study Commission (1989) have in common?
All sought to dramatically streamline and reduce the cost of Mississippi government.
All struck out.
You see, many governors and lots of citizens see government as public business financed by taxpayer dollars that should be well managed. But, history shows, government is really more like kudzu. A little bit grows up to a lot before you know it. Pruning has little impact. Kill a section and it reappears.
From Wikipedia: “For successful long-term control of kudzu, it is … necessary to use some method to kill or remove the kudzu root crown and all rooting runners.”
Every government program has its own “root crown” – a powerful legislator, official, or interest group – with “rooting runners.” Take on the “W” and you take on the alumnae; the Cooperative Extension Service and you take on the county agents and their friendly farmers, foresters, tomato growers, and quilters; Medicaid and you take on poor folks, nursing homes, children of nursing home clients, and the medical community; highways and you take on road builders, local officials, and economic developers; tax breaks and incentives and you take on the business community; schools and you take on parents, teachers, and their formidable allies. Rooting beneficiaries everywhere!
The Brookings Institution studied Mississippi and recommended 12 agencies in 1933; a study by Highsaw and Mullican, The Growth of State Administration in Mississippi, 17 agencies in 1950; a group of CEOs, 32 agencies in 1971. Factoid: in 1817 the state started with eight administrative agencies … by 1932 there were 80 … today, 142 plus. Other formal studies have recommended closing or merging universities, public schools, and so on.
Tight budget times drove all these studies and recommendations, just as they drive Barbour’s budget recommendations today.
So, what usually happens? Oh, the Legislature does a bit of pruning here and reorganization there, but the principal solution has been to find new money to spend. Recent examples include the special one-cent sales for education and the legalizing and taxing of casinos.
In 1991, the General Fund budget was just over $2 billion; by 2009, just under $5 billion.
Managing kudzu takes discipline. The same goes for government spending.
History shows governors attempting to provide more discipline than legislators (see study groups bearing their names above). But in 1955 and again in 1984, governors’ influence on the budget process eroded. In 1955, the Legislature created the Commission on Budget and Accounting with the governor as chair but dominated by legislators.
Then in 1984, due to the Allain lawsuit, the governor was booted off the commission and it was revamped into the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, totally controlled by legislators.
Barbour has exerted surprising discipline on the budget process. But, now, he’s going to bat for massive cuts and reorganization. The “rooting runners” stir in the bleachers. Legislators get their best pitches ready.
Might Haley steps to the plate….

Bill Crawford, a former legislator, runs a non-profit organization in Meridian. His e-mail address is crawfolk@att.net.

Bill Crawford