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Clear choices now in top two races

As I See It

Now that voters have set the stage for this fall’s general election, with the exception of a couple of interesting statewide matchups that will be finalized in the August 26th runoff, the knock-down, drag-out, bare-knuckles brawl between this year’s heavyweights can really begin.

Voters are focusing their attention on the campaigns for governor and lieutenant governor this year. The choices for these top posts in state government are clear, and we can expect to be bombarded with millions of dollars worth of advertising trying to influence the outcome in November.

Opinion holds that, generally, Mississippians are 40% Democrat and 40% Republican. The two sides compete for the remaining 20%. The mood of the populace, national and international events, and even something as simple as the weather on Election Day, will all play a part in determining who wins and who loses in just a few short months.

Not surprisingly, the two incumbents are running on their records. Both Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat from Batesville, and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck of Maben, who jumped to the Republican Party in late 2002, say they have done good jobs and should be re-elected. The challengers, Haley Barbour, either of Yazoo City or Washington, D.C. — it depends on one’s perspective — and trial lawyer and state senator Barbara Blackmon of Canton, allege that the incumbents have done not so well and need to be sent home.

Barbour vs. Musgrove

In the race for that big mansion in downtown Jackson, both candidates have been pushing well-defined platforms and staying on message.

The governor is touting his influence in locating the Nissan plant in Canton, as well as the creation of 50,000 new jobs during his term. (Unfortunately, he hasn’t brought up the fact that the state has lost about the same number of jobs and is roughly at break-even with respect to the creation of “net” new jobs.) He also takes credit, and justifiably so, for helping our teachers get a substantial payraise. And he is trying to brand Barbour as a Beltway insider who has worked against the interests of Mississippi.

Barbour, on the other hand, is saying the state’s finances are in the tank, and it’s the governor’s responsibility to manage the money. To a point, he’s right. The Legislature sets the state budget and the governor is charged with carrying it out. In fairness to Gov. Musgrove, he did veto budgets that he considered unworkable, but his veto was over-ridden by the Legislature. He further ordered state agencies to cut their spending to less than the amount budgeted.

Barbour also challenges the issue of tort reform. Though the Legislature did, however reluctantly, pass a tort reform measure last year, it stopped far short of what is needed to clean up the mess we have in our state. Trial lawyers dominate key legislative committees and the governor is a trial lawyer, thus meaningful tort reform is going to be extremely difficult.

The hurdle Barbour must leap is where to cut the budget to get control of the state’s finances. It’s easy enough to say the cuts are needed. It’s another matter entirely to list the programs that will be chopped with the fiscal axe. It’s one thing to tweak away a minor problem, it’s another thing altogether to whack away at a $600-million elephant.

In essence Barbour is proposing tough love for our state finances. Solving the problem is going to hurt and the situation gets worse every year. Regardless of who wins, we are in for some bitter financial medicine or our fiscal illness will persist.

Budgeting from scratch

The problem with managing a business, a state or a deer camp for that matter is our approach to budgeting. We take what was spent last year and build on that without really challenging whether the expenditure is justified. A better, and tremendously more difficult, approach is to start with nothing and build the budget from scratch.

If we only had $500 million to spend where would we allocate those dollars? What if the pot was $1 billion and not a penny more? This prioritizing approach cuts to the chase rather than attempting to balance competing interests and making everyone happy.

It’s time that our elected officials stop playing charades and admit that we are bogged down in fiscal muck and the state can’t pay for everything that everybody wants. With that admission as a starting point perhaps some sensible prioritization of our limited and precious resources can begin.

Whose message will resonate with the voters? Will Gov. Musgrove be able to convince the uncommitted that Barbour is an outsider who has worked to the point of exhaustion against the interests of Mississippi and that his inability to control state spending is entirely the fault of the “national recession?” Will Barbour succeed in winning the day with his message of financial responsibility even at the expense of losing state-provided services we have become accustomed to enjoying, the necessity for finishing the job of tort reform and avoiding a tax increase at all costs? We won’t know until November. However, in the meantime, our eyes and ears will never be completely clear of the pounding of the political surf.

Next week, a look at the Blackmon-Tuck race.

Thought for the Moment — Character is a long-standing habit. — Plutarch (c. 46-120 C.E.)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.


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