What will define Barbour’s term?

Published 11:11 pm Saturday, January 12, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — With Gov. Haley Barbour’s inauguration this week, many wonder how his second term as Mississippi’s leader will be defined.

Barbour, already a political powerbroker on the national scene when he was elected in 2003, became the spokesman for Mississippi’s resolve to recover from one of the worst national disasters in the country — Hurricane Katrina.

His administration also can point to growth in the state’s industrial sector with a $1.3 billion Toyota manufacturing plant at Blue Springs and an $880 million steel plant in Lowndes County.

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Yet, another distinction of Barbour’s administration has been partisan bitterness that reached levels rarely seen before in Mississippi — a dissension so strong it sometimes crippled the legislative process.

The rocky relationship Barbour initially had with the Mississippi House began to calm around his second or third year, said state Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.

‘‘Gov. Barbour had a very successful first term,’’ said Watson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee the past four years and a member of House Speaker Billy McCoy’s inner circle.

Watson said the governor and the House leadership eventually developed a mutual respect and ‘‘I trust that it will continue.’’

Barbour’s inauguration events begin Monday with a gospel prayer breakfast at the Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson. The inaugural ceremony is Tuesday on the steps of the state Capitol, followed by a downtown parade, an afternoon open house at the Governor’s Mansion and an evening ball at the Mississippi Coliseum.

Private funds will pay for the inaugural ceremonies, said Ryan Annison, executive director of the Governor’s Inaugural Committee, adding he didn’t know how much it will cost.

The inauguration will be scaled back from four years ago. After all, it is for a second term, Annison said.

Some say Barbour’s first four years in office helped turned the rural, poverty-stricken state on a course toward economic prosperity.

Mississippi’s unemployment rate is 5.7 percent, but it’s in double-digits in some counties that lack major industries. While some plants have opened in pockets of the state, others continue to shutdown, including last year’s closure of a Bryan Foods meat processing plant in West Point, leaving about 1,200 people out of work.

The state’s insurance crisis, which escalated after Katrina, has left thousands unable to afford insurance, and Mississippi is facing a softening economy, like the rest of the nation.

Watson said while many would say Mississippi is in better shape since Barbour has taken office, ‘‘others would say it is getting worse.’’

Barbour has said that economic development will be a priority the next four years. The first step toward that goal, he said, would be luring more suppliers to north Mississippi to serve the Toyota plant.

He also has appointed a public-private commission to study the state’s tax code with the goal of restructuring the system to make it more equitable to all incomes.

Barbour also said completing various Hurricane Katrina recovery projects by year’s end is another goal. The storm struck the Gulf Coast region in August 2005, paralyzing a major tourist destination.

Several projects are under way, including efforts to rebuild homes and restore public and affordable housing. Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, said she’s hopeful the progress will continue.

‘‘The governor has had enormous success in lobbying (Congress) for grants. I hope he will use the same expertise in lobbying for insurance reform,’’ Peranich said.

Sen. Tom King, R-Petal, said he’s encouraged that Barbour has indicated he’ll focus on health care and insurance in his second term. King said if those issues aren’t addressed, south Mississippi can’t continue to grow.

‘‘He’s the most effective governor ever in Mississippi,’’ King said.

Many argue Barbour’s widening influence over Republican lawmakers is one of the reasons the 2005 Legislature ended without a budget agreement. The opposing sides were the Democrat-led House and the Republican-led Senate, which usually followed Barbour’s funding suggestions.

Criticism that Barbour has fueled partisanship in state politics is shrugged off by Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall.

‘‘A divided government and partisanship actually lead to a better Legislature. They hash it out in the public. We have to meet somewhere in the middle.

‘‘Partisanship is an issue. There’s plenty of blame to spread around, from Democrats to Republicans,’’ Fillingane said. ‘‘When the Democratic Party was monolithic in Mississippi, there was very little public debate.’’

Watson said he believes Barbour and the Legislature can work together to move the state forward, despite the partisanship.