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Conservatives pulled Mississippi’s...

Conservatives pulled Mississippi’s budget out of the ditch, deserve credit

By: Rebekah Staples - September 15, 2023

Rebekah Staples

In the last twenty years, Mississippians have seen historic tax cuts, tremendous gains in per capita income, and a return to the idea that taxpayers, not the government, know best how to spend their dollars.

In 2003, then-candidate Haley Barbour spoke to thousands of voters across the state with a simple message: “We can do better.”  This slogan was a not-so-subtle jab at his opponent, Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

Under Gov. Musgrove’s watch, Mississippi went from “the best financial condition in our state’s history to the worst, with a nearly $700 million hole in our state budget,” according to Haley’s Plan, an ideas platform released by the Barbour for Governor campaign.

Barbour spent months on the stump telling voters he was against raising their taxes: “We’re not in the worst financial shape in our history because we tax too little; it’s because we spend too much.”

In 2003, USA Today reported Mississippi was one of the worst states in the country for managing its state budget, second only to California.  The report noted that the financial problems “racking many state governments this year have less to do with the weak national economy than with the ability of governors and legislators to manage money wisely.”

A report by WLOX noted that Gov. Musgrove’s third State of the State speech, delivered during a time of immense fiscal pressure, “addressed no specific programs or specific solutions to the problems brought on by lagging finances.”  Even former Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat himself, said the “State of the State is usually – and should be – a speech about where we are in Mississippi and where we need to go and one of the most important issues right now is our state’s budget…The governor doesn’t seem to want to address that and we need to address it.”

Barbour’s message of fiscal prudence won the day, making him our 63rd Governor and, at the time, only the second Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction. Almost immediately, he went to work tackling the state’s deficit – and he made no bones about his hands-on approach.  Scoffing at the idea of being a figurehead, Barbour told the New York Times he did not apologize for tough tactics and “didn’t run to be a caretaker.”

Championing a deficit-cutting initiative called “Operation: Streamline,” Barbour gave out small calculators to legislators to symbolize his commitment to work with them to roll up their sleeves, crunch the numbers, and get Mississippi’s budget back under control.  I still have a stack of Operation: Streamline calculators in a cardboard box.

The plan worked, and within 2.5 years, Barbour helped right the state’s economic ship without raising taxes on most Mississippians.

The contrast between Musgrove and Barbour is, in many ways, a reflection on divergent philosophies on the role of government. Musgrove and his ilk focused on growing government in hopes of solving what ails us. 

Barbour, and those who have followed him, ascribe to a different set of ideas that put less emphasis on big government solutions and more emphasis on empowering individuals to succeed on their own merit. As a practical reality, this translates to a tighter belt on government spending, lower taxes, and support of free enterprise. 

Barbour’s successors have built on his steady-hand accomplishments.  

From Gov. Phil Bryant to Gov. Tate Reeves, conservative chief executives have delivered on the promise of fiscal management.

The result?  Instead of a $700 million budget deficit, Mississippi is looking at a $700 million surplus for the most recently completed fiscal year (2023)!  

Gov. Reeves captured it perfectly, noting the surplus “is further proof of our state’s economic strength and the effectiveness of our conservative budgeting practices.”  

In the last twenty years, Mississippians have seen historic tax cuts, tremendous gains in per capita income, and a return to the idea that taxpayers, not the government, know best how to spend their dollars.

Conservative governors applying conservative principles, from Barbour to Bryant to Reeves, deserve much credit for the gains. 

About the Author(s)
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Rebekah Staples

A native of Laurel, Mississippi, Rebekah has worked in the communications and public policy fields for over a decade and currently works as president of her own consulting firm, Free State Strategies. Rebekah previously served as Gov. Haley Barbour’s policy director on issues including budget, finance, workforce and economic development, pension reform, and government efficiency. Most recently, she has built on this experience to serve as a senior advisor to Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, assisting him with passage of major policy priorities and management of legislative committees. Rebekah graduated summa cum laude from Mississippi College and has a Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt University. Rebekah is a Fellow of the second class of the Civil Society Fellowship, a Partnership of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and The Aspen Institute, and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.
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