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Barbour visits, says his proposal for spending best

[12/17/04] Gov. Haley Barbour promoted his budget proposal at two stops here Thursday, saying his plan offers a realistic solution to the state’s immediate and future fiscal challenges.

Barbour repeated his stand against raising taxes in any form and his request that the Legislature allow each agency that reports directly to him to cut its budget by 5 percent.

The governor made his comments at a meeting of the Vicksburg Rotary Club and at The Vicksburg Post.

“I’m against raising taxes,” Barbour said in response to a question about whether taxes should be raised on tobacco products to help cover an anticipated gap between revenues and expenses for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“I’m not going to get myself in a position of saying, Well, raising this tax is OK,'” he said. “The fact is that raising taxes is the enemy of controlling spending.”

A coalition of 44 agencies is seeking a $1 increase in the excise tax on cigarettes that would raise $180 million and deter use of tobacco products.

Barbour released his budget Tuesday. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee followed Wednesday with its proposal.

“In one year, we can re-base our spending and put our fiscal problems behind us, this year,” Barbour said of his plan.

The Legislature granted Barbour budget control of the Department of Corrections this year and, he said, the state is paying less to house more inmates. Corrections has reduced its spending over the previous fiscal year by 5 percent despite a 3 percent increase in its prisoner population, he said.

While the Legislature allocates revenue, the executive branch of government, which Barbour heads, oversees spending. But there’s little discretion, Barbour said, adding “only 21 percent of the money is spent by people who report to me,” he said.

The bulk of state spending, about 62 percent, goes to education. The state has had a plan to increase education spending for children in grades K-12, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, in place since 1997, before Barbour became governor. The MAEP calls for an increase in spending on K-12 education of about $266 million over the current year.

Barbour’s plan would increase the spending on K-12 education by about $67 million, a 4 percent overall increase, according to his staff. He says his plan would “increase classroom dollars in MAEP by 8 percent while reducing administrative costs in schools by 5 percent” and fully fund the fifth of five years of legislatively created teacher pay raises.

At the Rotary meeting, Barbour said, contrary to what some believe, he is very grateful for what the Mississippi Legislature did during the first year of his term. A job creation summit identified three things state government could do to create a climate that would lead to private job creation.

Those things were a complete overhaul of the job training program, ending lawsuit abuse and no tax increases.

“The Legislature did them all,” he said, adding that of the 16 points he outlined in his inaugural address, the Legislature passed 12 of them.

The upcoming 2005 session will be a difficult one, Barbour said, mainly because of the difference between the tax money the state is projected to receive and the amount sought by the various departments and agencies.

The state economist, Barbour said, reported last week that job growth is not only positive for the first time in four years but Mississippi had the greatest job growth since 1999. Also, personal income is up for the first time since 1998.

“We have turned the corner economically. I don’t think there is any question about that, you can see it in virtually every area of the state,” he said. “We’re seeing growth, and it shows up in the statistics.”

In spite of the positive signs, Barbour said the period of growth is still very fragile.

“We can’t take a risk that we stumble now … that will keep us from increasing this period of growth,” he said.

“It is crucial for me that during this session of the legislature we don’t raise taxes. Taxes are a huge obstacle to job creation. Last year Mississippi had the second highest state and local taxes in the South,” he said.

Also increased was money for classroom supplies, textbooks and supplemental pay for senior teachers to mentor younger teachers.

“I level funded, no cuts, for the highway patrol, the bureau of narcotics, the emergency management administration, the National Guard and homeland security,” Barbour said. “Plus, we added enough for a highway patrol school.”

“I increased Medicaid spending in my budget by $43 million. It will be very tough to keep the state portion of Medicaid from going up more than $43 million. We have got to get control of spending for Medicaid. It is an absolute must.”