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Q&A: Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi

CEO of Mississippi

Barbour tackles toughest issues facing the state

The youngest of three sons, Yazoo City native Haley Barbour is currently serving his second term as governor of Mississippi.  Prior to being elected in 2003, Barbour served as a lobbyist and was chairman of the Republican National Convention from 1993 to 1997.  He recently sat down for a conversation with the Mississippi Business Journal’s Nash Nunnery.

Q — State tax collections have fallen short of expectations for the past 15 months in a row and millions have been slashed from the state’s budget. What are expectations to reverse this trend in 2010 and is there a timetable for recovery?

A —  It’s feasible that the private sector may see things begin to turn around in 2010, but recovery as far as state revenues are concerned are going to lag well behind the overall economic recovery. As for any timetable for recovery, it’s not something anyone in government can determine beforehand. Recovery happens when you put people to work in the private sector. Obviously there is a role government can play in attracting new business and industry and expanding the existing ones. We face a budget gap of some $715 million for fiscal year 2011, and to close that gap, we’re going to have to make some tough choices. Right now, one of the most important things we can do is to make some fundamental changes in the way state government operates so we can be ready when the economy turns around. 

Q —  How does the budget crisis rate with other hurdles the administration has faced since you were first elected in 2003?

A — Probably the comparison most people make is the way Mississippi dealt with Hurricane Katrina, and there are some similarities. After Katrina, it looked like the hand of God had completely obliterated the Mississippi Gulf Coast from a physical standpoint. Now we’re looking at a crisis that’s financial. The most important similarity is in the way we deal with a crisis. After Katrina, people hitched up their britches and went to work on the problem. We didn’t get into the blame game, and people helped each other as they could. That’s how we’ll get through this budget crisis. We’ll work on the problem, make some sacrifices, and come up with some new ways of doing things.

Q — There have been some criticism of your proposal to merge Mississippi’s three historically black universities.  How would you address critics of the plan?

A — A budget gap of $715 million this year and a projected shortfall of $1.2 billion next year forced us to look at everything in the budget, and merging Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn into Jackson State and to merge Mississippi University for Women into Mississippi State was my proposal to keep those campuses open and available to anyone who wants to utilize those campuses. Merging allows us to consolidate administrations and keep the campuses open. I understand people being loyal to their school and not wanting them to be paired under another name, but I think in the case of the historically black universities, there’s a real opportunity to put the best of what Valley and Alcorn have to offer under the Jackson State umbrella and set a new standard with Jackson State as the premier historically black university in the nation.

Q — Why do you think Construction Work in Progress financing (allowed via the Baseload Act passed by the state Legislature in 2008) is a good idea?

A — Having an abundant, affordable energy supply will enable Mississippi to be more competitive in the future when a reliable source of energy will be a major factor attracting economic development projects.  The Construction Work in Progress authority passed by the Legislature in 2008 gives Mississippi a great advantage by enabling companies to finance capital-intensive baseload electricity projects in a less expensive way.  Of course, this means ratepayers save money because interest expenses are lower.  

Q — Are you satisfied with the progress with the rebuilding efforts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina four years ago?  If not, what else can be done to facilitate a speedier recovery?

A — Things never move as fast as I’d like, but we have made enormous progress in a relatively short amount of time. After Katrina, we had families living in more than 40,000 travel trailers. Within four years, we’ve got that number under 340 statewide, and fewer than 170 of those are in the three coastal counties. Thousands of housing units are now back online. In fact, public housing authorities have more units now than they had pre-Katrina, and our numbers indicate that overall housing stock recovery is very strong. Our cities and counties have either completed or are in the midst of rebuilding water and sewer lines and other infrastructure. 

Despite all of this progress, the work is not nearly over. To continue recovery, the federal government needs to expedite the permitting process for public and private projects. These projects, like the restoration of the Port of Gulfport, are funded but the permitting process takes too long. The federal government needs to find ways to expedite the permitting process so these projects can begin. Job creation – getting folks back to work – is vital to a thriving Gulf Coast. We are heading in the right direction.  

Q — Looking back over you tenure as governor thus far, what is one thing you would change, if any, if you could?

A — I wasn’t prepared for the partisanship in the Legislature, particularly the House. Historically, the Mississippi Legislature had been quite non-partisan. The House hasn’t been that way in my tenure. Even though Democrats have majorities in both chambers, we’ve learned to make it work.

Q — What do you love most about Mississippi?

A — This one is easy: The people. Mississippians are not only known for their hospitality but for their strong work ethic. That hard-working attitude was evident to the rest of the nation, even the world, after Katrina. People didn’t see Mississippians whining and moaning. Instead, they saw a state pull together to help neighbors recover and rebuild. That attitude is what Fortune 500 company CEOs saw. And we’ve had more economic development prospects knocking on our door to come here.  They want those dedicated, caring people they saw on television working for them.

Age: 62
Hometown: Yazoo City
Degree: Law
Hobbies/Interests: Golf, hunting, reading
Favorite food: Dessert
Favorite movie: “Patton”
Last Book Read: Walter Issacson’s “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”
Person Who’s Most Inspired You: Ronald Reagan


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