Hurricane Katrina recovery remains near the top of Gov. Haley Barbour’s agenda as Mississippi lawmakers begin their 2007 session on Tuesday.
The governor says he’s waiting to hear back from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on his request to use federal grant money to help head off drastic rate increases for commercial insurance along the coast.
During a pre-session interview with The Associated Press staff in Jackson, Barbour said he hopes to get a decision in the next few weeks.
“If HUD doesn’t give us that approval, then we’ll have to decide should that be done legislatively, with state money,” Barbour said. “Obviously, we’re not going to do it with state money if we can do it with federal money.”
Even if state or federal money is put into the system, south Mississippi business owners are still likely to face higher costs for insurance coverage, he said. He said officials are looking at putting “in the neighborhood of $30 million” into the commercial program to moderate the increase.
Some highlights of Barbour’s AP interview:
AP: Some lawmakers could again come forward with a proposal to create state-funded homeowner grants for Katrina recovery. Your thoughts on that?
Barbour: “I’m against spending state money to pay for anything that the federal government will pay for. Why would we burden the people of Mississippi with paying back $100 million of bonds, plus interest, when the federal government will just give us the money and we won’t have to pay it back?”
AP: What are your three or four top priorities for the 2007 session?
Barbour: “Obviously, we need to have a responsible budget that puts money on our priorities. It took us two full budget years to dig out of the hole we were in when I became governor…. I make education a priority. And my budget provides for $159 million in K-12 spending for next year over this year…. Since I’ve been governor in my three budget years, we’ve increased K-12 spending by $323 million…. That is a 19 percent increase. It includes two back-to-back 8 percent teacher pay raises…. My budget proposes to increase spending for community colleges and universities again next year.”
AP: Obviously, the budget is going to dominate the session. Do you have some policies you’re going to put forward?
Barbour: “I think you can expect to hear some things in the State of the State about policy in several areas. As you know, the Legislature (in 2006) passed my UpGrade Education reform package _ which had passed both houses the previous year but died because it never went to conference. We’ll continue to build on some of the things that we’ve done, but right now we don’t have anything to announce….
“The most important thing to me, we’ve got to continue the recovery and renewal from Katrina. We have to take advantage of the economic opportunity that Katrina has generated, and that economic opportunity spreads way beyond south Mississippi. To do that, we’ve got to have a responsible budget that emphasizes our priorities at affordable levels.”
AP: The issue of increasing taxes on cigarettes and decreasing taxes on groceries is going to come up again. You vetoed bills last year. Your position?
Barbour: “I’m against raising anybody’s taxes. I started saying that in 2002. Said it a few thousand times before I was ever elected governor. And I meant it….. When you’ve got as much uncertainty about the financial condition of the state as we have and as everybody knows we have, that is not the time to make dramatic changes in your tax structure or your revenue picture…. I would rather see us get down the road a little bit and then see what we can do in terms of improving the state’s tax structure.”
AP: So you’re talking about a couple years from now for some kind of change in the tax structure?
Barbour: “I think everybody realizes we need to see at least one more year to see what this map looks like.”
He holds up a map showing changes in sales tax collections since Katrina, with significant increases in southern counties.
“Somewhere between 41 and 42 percent of state revenue comes from sales tax. So when there’s a big one-time increase in the sales tax, that affects the budget in a major way. We’re not talking about some little around-the-edges thing.”
AP: There’s an old saying around the Capitol that it can be tough to deal with politicians running for re-election when they think they’ve got a bunch of money….
Barbour: “One of the challenges it so keep spending from going wild during the session. There’s no question about that. And the way to do it is to offer them a good budget that funds the priorities at appropriate levels and still protects the taxpayers from raids or diversions from the rainy day fund.”
AP: You’ve demonstrated you have the support you have among enough legislators to sustain vetoes, when needed. Does that make you more confident about proposals you put forth?
Barbour: “One of the good things about my experience these last three years is that when I’ve offered good policy, lots of Democrats have supported me…. There’s a Democratic majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate. I can’t pass anything without Democratic support. But in our work force development and job training, for Momentum Mississippi, for keeping control of spending, for not raising taxes, for tort reform … for the way we have undertaken the Katrina recovery and renewal, there have been bipartisan majorities.”
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