By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — As he bade farewell to lawmakers Wednesday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged them to be mindful of taxpayers as they set state budgets and be patient with each other and with new state leaders because “you can’t do diddly by yourself.”
Barbour, 64, leaves office when his second term ends at noon Jan. 10. He will be succeeded by Republican Phil Bryant.
“I promise you, eight years ago, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But it turned out to be a bunch,” the term-limited Republican said during a nearly half-hour speech to a joint session of the House and Senate.
“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, from the hills or the Delta, coast or piney woods, northeast Mississippi or southwest Mississippi, black or white, veteran or freshman — you can’t do diddly by yourself,” said Barbour, speaking without a prepared text but using his usual array of colorful phrases.
He told the 122 House members and 52 senators: “You have to be able to work together to get the toothpaste out of the tube. Civility, comity and best of all collegiality all are necessary if you’re going to achieve your best as an individual and as a body.”
Barbour urged lawmakers to keep taxes and fees as low as possible. He said families and businesses can do more if they get to keep more of what they earn.
“Some legislators come to Jackson and approach the budget from the perspective of, ‘How much money do I want or think we need to spend on state programs?’ Others start from the perspective of, ‘How much money do we have to spend?’ And only after seeing what’s available do they focus on how to appropriately divide that amount of money up among our various programs,” Barbour said. “You won’t be surprised to learn that the first group normally wants to spend more than the second group.”
He said everybody should pay some taxes, and he said a large chunk of Mississippi’s revenue comes from the sales tax, which is 7 percent on most items.
“The state consumption taxes mean everybody pays something,” he said.
He said the federal government should allow states to collect taxes on sales made over the Internet, and he argued that allowing states to do so would not be a tax increase on consumers.
“This is not about spending. This is about being able to collect the money that is already owed to us,” Barbour said.
Barbour also said the 152 local school districts, collectively, hold about $615 million in reserve funds and they should dip into that money, if necessary, to offset possible cuts in state funding. School officials have resisted that suggestion by Barbour in the past, saying the reserve funds help them maintain enough money throughout each fiscal year to pay bills as they come due.
Barbour’s wife, Marsha, usually attends his speeches at the Capitol. He apologized for her absence Wednesday, saying she was a few blocks away overseeing their move out of the antebellum Governor’s Mansion, which he called “the nicest public housing in Mississippi.”
Barbour, a former Washington lobbyist, explored a possible presidential campaign early last year before saying he didn’t have the “fire in the belly” for an all-out 2012 race. He plans to travel as a paid speaker and work for BGR, the Washington lobbying firm he helped found two decades ago. He said he will write a book on responding to natural disasters.
Some freshman lawmakers said they appreciated hearing Barbour’s perspective on state government.
“His thoughts on helping business with taxes and letting them spend their money to hire more people and leaving more of your money in your pocket is really big in my district right now,” said Rep. Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville, who defeated a four-term Democrat. “People are struggling.”
Rep. Deborah Butler Dixon, a Raymond Democrat who unseated a 28-year Democratic incumbent, said she found it interesting to learn that school districts have millions of dollars in reserve. She said she had only heard education officials saying budget cuts could hurt the quality of instruction.
“It just disgusts me knowing they have that kind of money and the teachers are saying they’re not getting the right, proper payment,” Dixon said after Barbour’s speech.