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GOP's Barbour tests political waters

By By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
APril 28, 2002
Mississippi businessman and former national Republican chairman Haley Barbour of Yazoo City was in Meridian last week testing the political waters. He is considering a run for the Republican nomination for governor next year.
Barbour said he will not make a decision on his candidacy until after the November general elections. He was interviewed by the The Meridian Star's editorial board on state issues and politics.
The Meridian Star: Are you encouraged with the response to your considering a run for governor?
Barbour: Yes. There's a huge appetite for change and it's not unique to Meridian or East Central Mississippi. We'll see if there's an appetite for Haley. That's a different question. The desire for change is not just among Republicans. I don't underestimate the governor, I think that from the outset this is a competitive race whether I run or somebody else does.
In the last election the difference was 8,000 votes. Neither candidate got a majority, so you have to go back to 1987 when a Democratic candidate for governor got the majority of the vote. I think the Republican views are much more in tune with the main view of Mississippians and I think people are increasingly realizing that.
The Star: On what kinds of issues do you think the Republican view is the prevailing view?
Barbour: We've got the worst financial problems that the state's had in at least a generation and probably since the Depression.
When Fordice's Republican administration went out, we had more than $300 million set aside as surplus. That's how much more was taken in with taxes than we spent. In two and a half years the Democratic administration spent all that and borrowed another $280 million and then borrowed money from every trust fund anybody ever heard of and from some trust funds nobody even knew existed.
We've been on a spending spree at a time when revenue has been very tight. Our spending has been out of control to the point that we spent about $600 million more in the last two and a half years than we've taken in with taxes. Next year is going to be a brutal budget situation. We're either going to have to raise taxes or finally get control of spending.
The Star: What did we spend it on since all the schools on all levels are taking cuts?
Barbour: The state budget for Medicaid has more than doubled in two years. The administration spent at least 50 percent more than the Legislature appropriated for Medicaid in the last fiscal year. The budget was $250 million and they spent more than $400 million. Because of that, the state has taken money out of K-12 education, community colleges, universities and job training.
The Star: Has the Medicaid program been expanded?
Barbour: According to the state, at the beginning of the year there were 87,000 new people on Medicaid. My understanding is that has crept up to more than 100,000.
Nursing homes haven't had anything to do with this, though the governor talks about kicking people out of nursing homes. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' March survey, in Mississippi last month there were several hundred fewer people in nursing homes paid for by Medicaid than there were a year ago.
The governor has said he would like to get the Legislature's authority to change the program to get it under control. I saw where the lieutenant governor said that the governor should give them a list of what he wants to do so that they can decide whether to give him the authority to do it. Other states have dealt with big Medicaid problems in the past and there are a number of obvious reforms that have been put in place to save a lot of money.
The Star: If you were governor how would you approach dealing with the Legislature on a problem like this?
Barbour: If I were governor I would want the authority to manage the program better, but I would not be at all reluctant to show the Legislature in advance what my plans are. And candidly, if you were governor when the budget more than doubled in two years, why would you expect the Legislature to trust you to cut the cost without at least showing them what you had in mind and why it would be different than past experiences?
The Star: What would be the governor's role in the tort reform debate?
Barbour: In Mississippi today doctors are leaving practice. The Medical Association says that at the end of the year there will be only five or six doctors in the Delta delivering babies. We now have a civil lawsuit environment that is hurting the quality of life in the state. It's hurting access to health care. It's raising the cost of doing business. We're to the point where every small business in Mississippi is one lawsuit away from bankruptcy.
I think we need a variety of things. We have problems with venue, class action certification, particularly in medical malpractice there is a need for caps. We need punitive damages reform.
Punitive damages in civil cases are not damages to which the plaintiff is entitled. They are more in the nature of a civil fine or punishment. Maybe what we need to do in terms of punitive damages is not just a cap, but reform the incentives, so that if this is going to be in the nature of punishment for bad behavior to which the plaintiff is not entitled to the money, maybe the money ought to go to the state to disincentivise the lawyers by letting punitive damages be decided in a separate proceeding where the state is the recipient and the lawyer is not the principal beneficiary.