JACKSON — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour used his State of the State address Monday night to promote job creation and to urge lawmakers to be cautious with state spending.
Though the 36-minute speech contained few surprises and or new policy initiatives, the Republican governor did elicit a few gasps in the House chamber when he said the state Department of Corrections could be forced to release 3,000 to 4,000 inmates. He said it could happen if he is forced to make 8.1 percent budget cuts to all state agencies before the fiscal year ends on June 30.
Barbour wants lawmakers to give the him flexibility to cut some agencies’ spending more than others.
“I cannot believe anyone watching this speech on TV or hearing it on the radio would vote to turn 3,400 to 4,000 convicts loose onto civil society, on to the public,” said Barbour, who has already cut $226 million out of the nearly $6 billion state budget.
Barbour said another $211 million will need to be slashed. But Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory said after the speech that Barbour can avoid that.
“It’s not required by the financial situation. It’s not required by the laws of the state. It’s not required by the laws of math. It’s not required by the laws of physics,” Bryan said. “If he makes these cuts, it is a policy decision that the governor is choosing to make.”
Bryan said Barbour could take $50 million to $100 million from the state’s $300 million financial reserves to avoid deep cuts. Barbour, however, repeated what he has said for more than a year – that he wants the financial reserves to last at least until 2011 or 2012, when he thinks the economy will be stronger and state revenues will improve.
Barbour – entering his seventh year in office – thanked lawmakers for passing incentives this month to bring a German pipe manufacturer to Tunica County. He said Mississippi should continue trying to attract high-tech manufacturing jobs so the state will be ready to emerge from the global recession.
He urged legislators to be cautious as they write a budget this year. Barbour said Mississippians have no appetite for new taxes.
He also sharply criticized a proposal favored by Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and others on the bipartisan Joint Legislative Budget Committee, to have an amnesty program that would let people or businesses pay overdue taxes without penalties.
“The overwhelming majority of Mississippians faithfully pay their taxes every year,” Barbour said. “Those taxpayers deserve for us to make every effort to collect the taxes owed by people or companies that aren’t paying as they’re supposed to.”
Barbour told lawmakers that the state Health Care Trust Fund is not functioning as it was originally intended, and he’s willing to spend down the balance over at least four years if lawmakers agree.
The trust fund was established in the late 1990s as a place to deposit Mississippi’s annual lawsuit-settlement payments from cigarette makers. Legislators intended to let the fund build a large balance, and to spend only the earnings for health care programs. However, with tight budgets the past several years, legislators have been dipping into the fund itself and diminishing the balance.
Republican Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian said Barbour’s speech struck “a somber tone, which was perfectly appropriate.” Snowden said balancing the budget is difficult in a state where revenues have fallen short of expectations for the past 16 months.
“Anybody paying attention has got to realize this is a multiyear problem,” Snowden said. “It won’t be solved this year or next year.”