• 50°

Musgrove, Barbour trade barbs over education in first debate

JACKSON Education was among campaign themes over which leading candidates for governor sparred in their first televised debate at Belhaven College.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, the Democratic incumbent, and his Republican challenger, Haley Barbour, debated for about an hour before a live audience of about 700 and a statewide TV audience that debate co-moderator Bert Case said could also include viewers of the C-SPAN cable networks.

“I’m not going to let you come to our state and talk bad about our teachers,” Musgrove said to Barbour.

The governor, who is from Panola County and is seeking a second term in office, continued to try to paint Barbour, a Yazoo County native, as an outsider. Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997 and has worked as a Washington, D.C., attorney and lobbyist for private-sector clients since.

Musgrove was responding to Barbour’s comments, similar to those he has made before, that public schools lack discipline and that he can help solve the problem if elected.

“Teachers are afraid they won’t be backed up by principals,” Barbour responded, adding that principals are afraid they won’t be backed up at higher levels. “When Haley Barbour is governor, they will be” backed up at the highest level of state government, Barbour said.

Musgrove disagreed with Barbour’s assessment of the state of public education in Mississippi, citing a federally required accountability plan the state has passed relatively early and statistics that have shown improvement by some measurements.

“We are handling discipline, and I have confidence in our teachers and our administrators,” Musgrove said. The governor also noted that, of the current spending plan he submitted to the Legislature, 62 percent was to be spent on education and that lawmakers voted to fully fund that amount.

The candidates also differed on the state of the state’s civil-justice system.

Musgrove said last year’s special legislative session, which he called, resulted in positive changes that compare favorably with those made in other states, such as Texas and Florida.

“Clearly we have made major steps,” he said, adding that the early-2000s downturn in financial markets may be partially to blame for what some have called a crisis in liability insurance for health-care providers in the state.

Barbour is among those who have called for further systemic changes to deal with what he terms the problem of “lawsuit abuse.”

“It’s not fixed,” Barbour said, adding that there are “still doctors leaving our state” and that small businesses also face increased risks in the current legal climate.

Candidates also responded to the question, presented by Case, “What can you do to make state government more colorblind?” Case noted that the state’s population is 37 percent black.

“Martin Luther King was right,” Barbour said, “we should judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.”

“My appointments have reflected the people of Mississippi,” Musgrove said.

The candidates continued sparring over the issue of free trade. Musgrove again tried to tie Barbour to the loss of in-state jobs by noting that he has backed free-trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“The reason you’re hearing about NAFTA is because he doesn’t want to talk about Mississippi,” Barbour said.

Barbour again tried to assign responsibility to Musgrove for what he called overspending by the state government during the first three years of the governor’s term. He specified several agencies whose spending he said is under the governor’s control.

Musgrove responded that he has submitted “a balanced budget, with accurate numbers” to the Legislature for each of those three years.

“What (state House of Representatives appropriations committee chairman) Charlie Capps and the Legislature do, certainly they will have to talk about that,” Musgrove said.

Other debates are scheduled for Oct. 6 at Mississippi State University in Starkville; Oct. 14 at Delta State University in Cleveland; and Oct. 20 in a yet-to-be decided location in Biloxi.