In the now classic movie The Hunt for Red October, one of the greatest lines of the movie was delivered by Scott Glenn (Captain Bert Mancuso) who said, “The hard part about playing chicken is knowin’ when to flinch.”
We seem to have the battle royale set up between Governor Haley Barbour and House Speaker Billy McCoy with his one vote majority in the MS House of Representatives. McCoy and his closest aides and lobbyists believed that Barbour and company would eventually cave in the budget amid new monies to use courtesy of Obama and the Stimulus package. He figured that a willing press coupled with the fact that key players on the Senate side (Lt. Governor Phil Bryant, Senate Pro-Tem Billy Hewes and Senate Appopriations Chair Alan Nunnelee) didn’t have the stomach for a fight 12-24 months prior to each running for higher office. The conservative side believes that one-time money cannot continue to shore up recurring revenue shortfalls and that it’s time to face the music and operate state government as if there are no more rabbits to be pulled from the governmental hat. House Conservaties along with Barbour loyalists in the Senate have held the line thinking that McCoy simply will not negotiate in good faith.
Behind the scenes, there’s been a ton of intrigue the last few days. Hours before the June 3 deadline, McCoy and his top lieutenants were scrambling for votes to extend the session. A rumor went around the Capitol on the 3rd that a deal had functionally been cut for the Hospital assessment. However, McCoy and his top aides and lobbyists shot the compromise down cold.
Barbour has nothing to lose. He’s not running for anything in 2011. He can “be the bad guy”. McCoy and the supporters in the House aren’t going to like him any less than they do now.
Put another way, Haley Barbour has a historic opportunity to stand up for conservative governance in Mississippi. This opportunity could shape his second term in office like Katrina shaped his first, and potentially switch the balance of power in the MS House of Representatives.
Here are a few options I see for how Barbour can handle this.
1. Call the leaders of both houses together and tell them to negotiate, put a time limit on it and ratify it in a one or two day special session when they’re done.
2. Barbour can procedure the opposition to death by calling special session and keeping them in session and letting public pressure build until they capitulate. However, this option presents the risk that he can’t hold his troops in line.
3. Call for a duplicate of the 2009 budget and put the power of cuts in the Governor’s hands.
4. The nuclear option is to split the budget into functional pieces. First call a special session to fund education. They call one to fund state government operations. The last one Barbour would do would be for Medicaid. Of course, by that point, there wouldn’t be enough money to fund it.
This situation reminds me of the Air Traffic Controllers Strike in 1981. That helped to define Reagan’s leadership style and everyone knew he was serious from then on. This has that same potential for Barbour.
If handled with some fortitude and foresight, Barbour could break the opposition in two pieces over his knee. In the process, he could cement his legacy as a fiscal conservative and create incredible buzz for what could be in 2012.