Message: Voters weary of political gamesmanship

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 24, 2010

Maybe they weren’t paying attention. If there was a message for Mississippi lawmakers in a Republican’s victory Tuesday in Massachusetts — Massachusetts! — it is that voters, pushed far enough, will demand elected officials put public interests above party loyalties.

A mere 14 months ago, the people of the Bay State gave Democrat Barack Obama their endorsement by a margin of more than 30 percentage points. Tuesday, the same voters elected upstart conservative Scott Brown to fill the remainder of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s term by a margin of more than 7 percentage points. A third of Massachusetts voters didn’t change ideologies. They made a plea for balanced government.

In Jackson, a partisan divide centers on — what else? — state spending for the remainder of this year.

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The rules, established before Republican Gov. Haley Barbour took office, are clear. They say once the Legislature sets a spending plan, if shortfalls occur a governor can take no more than 5 percent from any allocation before cutting at least 5 percent from all.

The presumption was that no state spending plan would ever fall more than 5 percent short. But this year’s General Fund shortage could be $437 million, or about 8 percent.

Barbour’s request had been for more discretion, that he be allowed to apportion cuts of up to 10 percent before applying the across-the-board meat ax. Without that authority, he said, up to 4,000 of the nearly 30,000 people in state prisons will have to be released.

Mississippi’s House, where Democrats dominate, twice offered to meet Barbour part-way, but insists that he draw more from state reserves. Barbour’s reply is that it’s foolish to deplete the “rainy day fund” now, especially since the budget outlook for the new year starting July 1 looks even more bleak than this year and so, in turn, he announced 8.2 percent cuts across-the-board and says he will try to avoid a prisoner release using federal funds.

While it might seem that the House position and the governor’s position, which has been endorsed by the Senate, are debatable, Mississippi voters, if they’re anything like their counterparts in Massachusetts, will note that legislators divided along party lines. That indicates this wasn’t merely an honest difference of opinion. It indicates there are House Democrats who wouldn’t mind seeing their political nemesis in the Governor’s Mansion have to explain a release of prisoners. It’s called setting up the big guy to take the fall.

Politicians persist in such gamesmanship at their peril. No one is happy that the state has less money this year than it expected to have. The public wants problems confronted and dealt with, period. When voters in Massachusetts — Massachusetts! — elect a Republican to the Senate, the message should be clear.