OPINION: Reaganism shows in Barbour government-downsizing budget

JACKSON – More than a “shock and awe” budget as one writer described it, Gov. Haley Barbour’s controversial FY
2011 funding proposal to shrink and eliminate state government services very well could be a Reaganesque philosophical document Haley has always dreamed of.
First, you must remember that Haley Barbour is a disciple of Ronald Reagan, having once worked as legislative liaison for Reagan’s White House. Next, you need to remember that Reagan’s fundamental doctrine of governance was that government “is not the solution, but the problem.”
His hypothesis was to “starve the beast,” shrinking the size of government by choking off spending. If Barbour’s secret plan is to impose the same doctrine on the already bare-bones government services of this small state, then the state’s deep revenue downturn from the Great Recession has definitely played into his hands, making budget cuts by the governor necessary under state law.
It’s been said by some that the Barbour budget goes after the “sacred cows” in Mississippi’s state government. That’s ridiculous. Show me a “sacred cow” state service. The only sacred cow I can think of is in the state tax code, in particular the income tax. You could throw in the oil and gas severance tax that has been unchanged since 1944 and a few others.
Barbour’s budget doesn’t merely trim state services, it pulls up by root and branch a number of them. Eliminating 10 mental health facilities would obviously strike a devastating blow to our health care services. Cuts in the public education budget would do harm to even thousands more of our population.
When the state is already spending less money per pupil for the education of its youth than any other state, it seems unimaginable that it could be cut any further without undermining the entire foundation of the state’s public education system that many able leaders have labored for years to make competitive with other states.
Republicans today like to remember Reagan for his whopping 1981 income tax cut (with help of Blue Dog Democrats). Reagan’s theory was the tax cut would “trickle down” in higher revenues. When the deficit quickly ballooned, he had to sharply roll back corporate tax cuts and part of the individual income tax cuts in 1982. After that, he presided over increases in four consumer taxes and in 1983 raised the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes – a move that did save the social programs’ benefits for years.
Despite Reagan’s promise to cut spending and shrink the size of government, his legacy was quite the opposite. During his years, government payrolls bulged and the national debt tripled. The huge deficit he handed down to his successor, George H.W. Bush, forced the elder Bush to break his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. That, many Republicans still believe, caused Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.
When Barbour first took office as governor in 2004, he let it be known he intended to imprint the Reagan brand on Mississippi state government. Obviously he has adopted only certain parts of the Reagan legacy, certainly not Reagan’s sharp course change to increase taxes when faced with a huge deficit.
One Reagan strategy – strengthening the power of the chief executive – has appealed to Barbour. While the governorship in Mississippi has always been known to be constitutionally weak, the politically shrewd Barbour has built the office into a formidable power center as a brake against the traditional legislative domination. Using the budget crisis as a pry pole, Barbour is seeking to grab new power by suspending for two years the job oversight authority of the state Personnel Board.
No doubt about it: the 2010 legislative session is going to be a real donnybrook.

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