MS State of The State
In a speech with few surprises but plenty of campaign hints in an election year, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Monday praised the state's economic progress since Hurricane Katrina while pledging more money for schools and fighting crime.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the future of Mississippi is brighter than it has been in our history," Barbour said in his State of the State address. "As strange as it might seem, that awful catastrophe Katrina is part of the reason."
Barbour began by pausing in memory of Rep. Leonard Morris, who died Friday, as well as other lawmakers who died in the past year, including Rep. May Whittington and Sens. Bunky Huggins and Billy Harvey.
Segments of his speech are sure to be heard on the campaign trail this year. He boasted about the state's legal climate after tort reform passed the Legislature in 2004 and the rising number of jobs since he took office. The speech lasted less than 40 minutes and was interrupted roughly 20 times by applause.
State revenues are higher than anticipated thanks to south Mississippians buying new washers, cars and clothes after Katrina hit in August 2005. But, Barbour warned, the money will not keep rolling in.
"These purchases won't occur every year," he said. "So we mustn't spend it on recurring expenditures."
More than $500,000 in donations has been raised to plan a civil rights museum in Mississippi, he said. He wants state and private donations used to plan and build the museum.
"It is overdue, and it needs doing," he said. "Many, many people want to get to be part of making this happen."
One couple, Democrats from Yazoo City who watched the address from the House gallery Monday evening, praised the governor for his willingness to fully fund public education.
"I was quite, I guess, elated and impressed with the idea that he is continually funding it more and more to reach the level that he thinks that's required," said Clarence Brown, 70, who attended with his wife, Marjorie. "We feel very good about what we heard tonight."
Brown, a parole board member, also commended the governor for recognizing the problems crystal methamphetamine has brought to the state. Barbour asked the Legislature to increase the number of narcotics agents by 50.
"I see people who violate the law because of crystal meth, and it's a devastating drug," he said. "I think we need to clamp down as much as possible on that and other, of course, drug abuse."
A request to increase the punishment for felons caught with guns was perhaps the most popular of Barbour's proposal as he was interrupted by applause after each sentence.
He wants a longer mandatory prison sentence for felons who commit crimes with a gun and a longer sentence for felons possessing guns.
"These changes will give prosecutors better tools to punish criminals who use guns to commit crimes," Barbour said.
He said he expected to sign a bill supporting the more than $2 billion school-funding formula that pays for teacher salaries and other needs in March. The House approved a bill funding public schools and giving teachers a 3 percent pay hike last week.
"More importantly, I expect that formula to be funded consistently at 100 percent in the years to come," Barbour said.
Weeks ago, Barbour had called the funding formula "artificial" and had said that fully funding it could hurt other parts of the state budget.
Some Democrats thought Barbour waited too late in his term to say he supports the formula.
"I wished these had been his priorities for the last four years," said Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville. "Now in an election year, he wants to fund public education."
Barbour said the Department of Education's budget has increased during his tenure - though not all the money went to the school formula.
He asked again for an early childhood development program that works with private day cares and federal Head Start centers. The Legislature created the program last year but left out the $5 million to start it.
House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the money will be there this year.
"We need to do better in our public schools, and we're making a great effort," he said.
And while House Speaker Billy McCoy praised the governor for his comments on public education, he made it clear Barbour's position has been the House's position all along.
"We're very appreciative of the governor's attitude on that now as opposed to a few weeks ago," McCoy said after the speech. "It seemed like he wasn't ready to do it then."
Barbour's statement in favor of fully funding education came after state Department of Education officials revealed they had reduced by $33.9 million the amount of money they originally said was needed in the fiscal year starting July 1.
House Democrats helped lead a rally on the Capitol steps last week for full funding of public education, a movement that included a $50,000 media campaign launched by the Mississippi Association of Educators.
When asked whether he thought the battle was for nothing, McCoy said no. "I think that the efforts of the House are paying off," he said.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck also said after the address that the Senate hopes to fully fund education, once it's clear the revenue estimates indicate there is enough money.
The speaker would say little else on the content of Barbour's address. "It's the governor's night ... and I don't want to be ripping into what he said," McCoy said.