Miss. Gov. Barbour: Louisiana Aid Package Seems 'Very Excessive'

Exclusive HUMAN EVENTS Interview:

In an exclusive interview with HUMAN EVENTS Editor Terence Jeffrey this week, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R.) outlined the combined state-and-federal effort to rebuild the vast area in his state damaged by Hurricane Katrina, saying his government would not use the disaster “as a way to gouge the taxpayers.”

Barbour said he hoped the federal government would pay 90% of the tab for repairing public infrastructure in Mississippi, but estimated the total federal costs for relief, recovery and rebuilding in his state would be under $50 billion and might not be much more than $30 billion.  The $250 billion aid package being recommended for nearby Louisiana by that state’s U.S. senators, Barbour said, “seems to me very excessive.”

Barbour, a native of Yazoo City, Miss., has been involved in national Republican politics since he worked in the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign.  He served as political director for President Reagan and as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1994, when the Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in more than 40 years.

Asked about speculation he might run for President in 2008, Barbour said it was “highly, highly unlikely,” but did not rule it out. 

Defending himself in congressional testimony last week, former FEMA Director Michael Brown said that the biggest mistake he made in dealing with Hurricane Katrina was not recognizing “that Louisiana was dysfunctional” while noting that “the system worked in Mississippi and Alabama; the system did not work in Louisiana.” Do you agree with Brown about that?

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR (R.-MISS.):  Well, I don’t anything about Louisiana. So, I’m not knowledgeable to comment about there.  But I can tell you that in Mississippi the federal government has done a whole lot more right than wrong.  They have been good partners.  They haven’t been perfect partners, but I haven’t been perfect.  If you talk to our mayors and county officials, who have just been fabulous, they still haven’t been perfect either.  So, I don’t expect perfection, particularly when you have the worst hurricane in American history, which hit Mississippi dead on and obliterated our communications system, our electrical system, made our roads impassable, wiped out police stations, fire stations.  All of our public infrastructure was literally destroyed in a matter of hours, and to expect perfection in the aftermath of that is just unrealistic.

Were you satisfied with the performance of FEMA?

BARBOUR:  They did a lot more right than wrong.  I tell people we in Mississippi have made progress every day, but there hasn’t been any day that we made as much progress that I wanted to make.

Do you believe that the national media was unfair in targeting the Bush Administration for its performance in the aftermath of the hurricane?

BARBOUR:  Again, I only know what has gone on in Mississippi.  We have had about a half a million households, over 40% of the families in our state, who have applied for disaster assistance.  Seventy percent of our population, and more than half the area of the state, are in counties that have been declared major disaster areas.  So, we are not talking about a calamity on the coast.  We are talking about 29,000 square miles and 47 of our 82 counties. That’s by the way, 29,000 out of 47,000 square miles.  If you take 1.9 million people, which is how many people live in these counties, and if you get 98% of things right, there are 4,000 people a day who have something to complain about.

How many people in Mississippi are still living away from their homes at this point?

BARBOUR:   We don’t have that information. What we do have is as of last Sunday of the then-431,000 who had applied for disaster assistance, 77% were still living in the same zip code that they lived in when the storm hit, and 88% were still in Mississippi.

How do you gauge the spirit of the people in the state?  Do you think that it has bounced back, and they are positive and ready to move forward and rebuild Mississippi?

BARBOUR:   One of the incredible things was how soon this Mississippi spirit manifested itself.  Within hours and only a couple of days you already had the vast majority of people who not only were helping themselves, but were helping their neighbors.   Ordinary people performed extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness in the hours and days right after the storm—and that was the rule not the exception.  It was typical that people who were poor before the storm, and lost what little they had, within days were trying to do things to help their neighbors.

And, of course, there also has been an outpouring of support and assistance from people all over the country.  But last week, governor, you were quoted in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger as saying that thus far the federal government had paid 100% of disaster relief and recovery costs.  In the long run, what do you want and expect from federal taxpayers in terms of rebuilding and redeveloping Mississippi?

BARBOUR:   Current federal disaster relief law calls for the federal government to bear the lion’s share of rebuilding our public infrastructure. And that’s crucial.

And that means the highways, and the bridges, and that sort of thing, correct?

BARBOUR:   That’s right.  Ports, highways, bridges, water, sewers.  It’s hard to imagine, but this storm destroyed most of the sewer system on the coast.  We are finding sewer mains that have microwave ovens that somehow got jammed up the pipes.

Under the Stafford Act, the federal government is going to come in and pay 75% of the cost of building that type of infrastructure—everything from sewers to highways?

BARBOUR:   We hope they will pay a higher percentage than that.  But under the Stafford Act they will pay a minimum of that.

What would you like to see? Would you like to see them pay the whole bill?

BARBOUR:   No, I don’t think it’s right for them to pay the whole bill, because it’s important that the state and local governments be contributing.  That will help make us good stewards, because we will be stewards of our own money as well as the federal taxpayers’ money.  As I understand it, there have been 90-10 splits in the past, and that’s what we would like to see.  Now, the federal government is paying 100% in the immediate wake of the storm, but when we come to rebuilding our infrastructure, we would like for the federal government to pay 90% and us to pay 10%. We would not favor the federal government paying 100%.

President Bush said at the Pentagon a week ago that he had cut through some red tape so that the federal government could clear debris off private property.  Do you know what that means and the extent to which the government is actually going to pay to clear up people’s personal property?

BARBOUR:   Yes. We have areas on the coast that are literally obliterated, where for blocks and blocks and blocks everything is destroyed.  It is very hard to distinguish between public property and private property.  Many of the people are gone. They may not be gone but 30 miles, but they are not there.  Because the federal government had established a flood plain or flood zone that was based on Camille most of the destroyed houses were not in the federally declared flood way.  Therefore, those people had been told that they did not need flood insurance.  They relied to their detriment on the federal government’s determination that their homes were not in the flood zone.  Now, their homes are obliterated.  The debris is in an enormous pile, and it is obviously a health and safety risk.

So in the area of Mississippi that was total storm devastation, the federal government is going to clean up that area and treat the homes as if they were in an insured flood area for federal purposes?

BARBOUR:   They are going to treat them as if they were public property, because in this debris there are bodies, there are pools of water and other things that are health risks or safety risks.  There is a tremendous amount of dry wood that was part of houses, and also asbestos shingles.  A fire there could get out of control and put off some pretty nasty smoke. So, what the federal government is doing is allowing the clean-up of private residential property, with the city or county, depending on where you are, agreeing that they will try to collect for the federal government if there was any insurance coverage.  The federal government will try to get any insurance proceeds that were to go for cleaning.  But the red tape that was cut was that under the typical procedure each little lot has to be judged a health or safety risk before it can be cleaned up.  What the President said, and the government did, was decide that’s ridiculous.  Here we may have 80 square blocks where there is nothing.  So, rather than making you go lot by lot they allowed the locals to declare that this whole area is a health and safety risk to the public and therefore can be cleaned up.

Louisiana Senators Mary Landreu and David Vitter have proposed a $250 billion federal aid package, which, if I understand it correctly is money that they want to go only to Louisiana and not to Mississippi.  Is that correct?

BARBOUR:   I don’t much about their proposal.  However, I don’t think the cost of relief, recovery and rebuilding will be anything like that amount.  That seems to me very excessive.  We are trying to project what the costs would be here and it is a small fraction of that.

Do you think that the relative damage in Mississippi is not that much less than in Louisiana?

BARBOUR:  In many ways it is far worse.

Do you have a general idea of how much the total federal cost of rebuilding Mississippi’s damaged areas?

BARBOUR:     It will be well under $50 billion.  Well under.  Our best estimates right now are in the low thirties.  I don’t want anybody to think we are trying to compare Mississippi to anyone else.  We’ll stand on our own two feet.  We need the federal government’s help.  At the same time, we are going to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, and we are not going to try to use this as a way to gouge the taxpayers.  The American people have been incredibly generous to us—private philanthropy, corporate philanthropy, the enormous number of volunteers who have come down here from all over the country.  Our sister states have been fabulous in sending us National Guard, highway patrol, investigators, resources of all types.  North Carolina sent us a whole hospital, with two operating rooms, which, by the way, was financed by FEMA, I might add.  But everybody has been so generous to us, and the federal government has put hundreds of millions of dollars in here already that we are obligated and we will be good stewards of the American taxpayers’ money. That is the least we can do.

Governor, how much do you see a role for tax cuts and tax credits and other incentives for private enterprise to come in and rebuild as opposed to spending money to do it?

BARBOUR:    Far and away the most important thing is the private sector’s response to Katrina.  I should note that private business can’t do business if their customers can’t get to them, and that is why infrastructure like roads and bridges and railroads and airports and ports are very, very important and the federal government has an enormous role there which is critical.  However, if we succeed in rebuilding the coast bigger and better than ever, if we restore south Mississippi to everything that it was, plus real improvements, it will be the market economy, the private sector, that is the main player.  Whether it’s small businesses, entrepreneurs or large employers, they will decide how much to invest, how to invest, where to invest, to whom to lend, how much to lend, how much to insure, whom to insure.

So, if you are going out and talking to people who are looking to invest in a business somewhere, what are you going to tell them to persuade them to come to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi rather than to North Carolina, or Nevada, or Arizona or somewhere else?

BARBOUR:   First of all, assuming that the federal government passes the kind of tax packages that the President has proposed and Congress is now considering adding to even the President’s proposal, that will help get us back on a level playing field. Our disaster situation will be offset by some tax incentives.  When people look at how Mississippi has responded to the worst natural in history, they see a resilient, self-reliant, strong people, who have helped themselves and helped their neighbors.  They have seen people who in the wake of the worst adversity hitched up their britches and went to work, first cleaning up and recovering, then rebuilding.  I believe that businesses and retirees and others who build economies will look at Mississippi and say: I like those people. That is the kind place I want to be. I like that spirit.  Because the Mississippi spirit has really proven itself in the aftermath of Katrina.

So, that is one big part of it.  We do have to get our infrastructure rebuilt.  But, finally, it will be what the private sector decides in terms of investing. We are committed to the coast coming back bigger and better than ever.

Up here in Washington, Rep. Mike Pence and the Republican Study Committee, who are the conservatives in the House, have called for spending offsets to pay for the costs of rebuilding after Katrina.  They have even called for at least looking at delaying the Medicare prescription drug plan for one year, which would save $30 billion, which may be enough to pay for the total federal share of rebuilding your state.  Do you support the efforts of the Republican Study Committee in that area?

BARBOUR:   It is important for us to be good stewards.  But my own view about government is that when you are not at a crisis that is the time to start looking for savings.  My state’s budget for this fiscal year that started July 1 was 1.75% less than we spent last year, real savings. Most of the departments and agencies took 5% cuts.  We would have been spending, and were spending, less on  Medicaid this year than last year.  Not less than the baseline projection, not less than somebody asked for, but less.

You were actually cutting real spending in the state?

BARBOUR:   That’s right.  We were going to 1.75% less this year than last year.

Even adjusted for inflation?

BARBOUR:   In nominal dollars.  So, it would be an even bigger cut if you adjusted it for inflation.

And that was because you felt what fiscal responsibility called for?

BARBOUR:   We had to get control of spending.  Spending in our state had gotten out of control. The year I was elected governor, we had a $700 million structural deficit on a $3.6-general fund.  We were spending 20% more than we were taking in, and we were covering it by taking money out of savings and diverting from other ways.  It took us two years, but we got back to a structurally balanced budget with no tax increases by getting control of spending. So, I think my bona fides holds up.

When you were actually cutting spending in the state of Mississippi, the federal government was actually increasing spending in real terms.

BARBOUR:   I am sure that is right.  But let me tell you, the time to make cuts is not when you are in a crisis like this and people need help.  Instead of saying that those coast towns ought to spend less we are working out how to give them more cash flow from the state to take the place of their lost revenue.  The point I am trying to make is you ought to be making in cuts in normal times.  You ought to be making cuts when revenue is going up—which is what we did, by the way, our revenue went up 8% last year, and was scheduled to go up at least that much in the year we are in now.  But when you are in a crisis that is not the time to go out and start making cuts.  Someone said we ought to cut the highway program. But the highway program is just what we need. It puts people to work.

Obviously you have a very serious situation to deal with in Mississippi and I assume you are not focusing a lot on the national political scene, but there is some sense that the President’s declining approval rating since Hurricane Katrina, and a general sense of some dismay and demoralization among the conservative base of the Republican Party nationwide might hurt the Republicans in the next election.  How do you see the horizon for the Republicans as a political party in the coming years?

BARBOUR:   I have had my head down, focused on what’s going on here in Mississippi. When your nose is on the grindstone, it’s kind of hard to have that sort of perspective.  Politics is the furthest thing from my mind.  I have cancelled all of my political schedule. For the first year and a half I was governor, I often went and spoke for state parties, campaigned for candidates, but I haven’t done any of that, and I have cancelled all of that for the rest of this year just because I don’t have time.

You are totally focused on rebuilding Mississippi?

BARBOUR:   That’s right.  My term lasts another 27 months, two and a quarter years.  Most of what I do for the next two and a quarter years is going to be about our state rebuilding and having a renewal in the wake of Katrina.  I recognize that, and I am comfortable with it.  But it means I’m not very knowledgeable about what is going on politically.

I am going to take a risk and ask you one more political question. There was another story in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger where some local Republican leaders were suggesting that you should be a presidential candidate in 2008.  Would you consider doing that?

BARBOUR:   I don’t think that is realistic.  I have got my plate totally full.  I haven’t given it thought because I haven’t had time, but the fact that I don’t have time sort of answers the question.

I understand you don’t think it is realistic and you haven’t thought about it, governor, but I take it that you are not ruling it out that you might be a presidential candidate in 2008?

BARBOUR:   I think it is highly, highly unlikely, and I certainly don’t have any plans in that regard.  I was flattered for the last year and half when people talked about my running for president, and people actually encouraged me, and wanted to help me.  But in the wake of this, what I have in front of me is a tall mountain that will take us years to get over, and with that in front of me I don’t see any room to be thinking about politics for president.  I just don’t.