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No passion for deficit spending

By By Buddy Bynum / editor
Feb.22, 2004
Let's get something out in the open here at the beginning Gov. Haley Barbour inherited a looming $709 million deficit in the state budget. It's not his fault, but it's now on his watch.
But let's not make this a political argument. The election is over and the business of governing has begun, at least as much as politics can ever be completely removed from governing.
In devising ways to trim the deficit, Barbour and some legislative partners last week announced "Operation: Streamline" as a plan for consolidating different state agency functions and giving the governor the responsibility and authority to find efficiencies.
Barbour told members of the Legislature that the ultimate goal of the plan is to eliminate the deficit in two years. In a letter to lawmakers, Barbour also corrected some misimpressions that are circulating about his deficit-cutting plan.
He said he hopes to work with lawmakers during this session to find revenue to restore K-12 funding to last year's level and believes the state will be more likely to have additional funds for K-12 if his proposals are adopted.
Barbour is right, of course, that streamlining state government offers great promise for eliminating the deficit a good thing for him and legislators alike. But will the Legislature give up its penchant for tinkering with the minutia of state government long enough to give his plan a shot?
Barbour, as governor, wants to assume the burden of finding efficiencies in state government. One test of leadership is, first, identifying the problem and, secondly, accepting the responsibility to make things better. I think Barbour has passed that test.
Governor's control
The plan would place executive agencies under the direct purview of the governor, centralize a new office of administrative services, merge the Bureau of Narcotics into the Department of Public Safety, and brings significant cost savings to Institutions of Higher Learning and Community Colleges.
Money for mental health would be redirected away from administrative duplication and toward the actual delivery of much needed mental health services.
Barbour said his plan would:
Maintain IHL funding by restoring $100 million to colleges and universities;
Provide additional funding for the Mississippi Development Authority, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and Homestead Exemption;
Provide additional money for a reformed Medicaid program, but save $130 million compared to projected spending;
Work toward finding additional funding for the Adequate Education Program;
Direct MDOT's fuel tax to the general fund (that in itself would be a $5 million gain to the general fund, but will MDOT commissioners buy in?).
Barbour gave out small calculators to members of the Legislature to symbolize the commitment to working with them to roll up our sleeves, crunch the numbers and get Mississippi's budget back under control.
Traditionally, legislators have been very reluctant to give up their authority, but if Barbour can convince them to do so, he will have passed another test of gubernatorial leadership.