Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's State of Pain

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Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is running for president. This isn't a prediction, so much as a forgone conclusion. When he wraps up this term in 2011, he will have that prized blend of attributes -- executive governing experience, widespread political respect, and relative mainstream anonymity -- that the press and voters look for in early frontrunners.

But he also carries his share of albatrosses. Barbour is a former lobbyist (a "pretty damned good one," by his own estimation) and a critic-turned-soft on Obama's stimulus, which is apparently a quiet scandal among Republican kingmakers.

Barbour is, supposedly, a hypocrite for criticizing the Recovery Act before accepting cash for Mississippi. That's silly. Leaders are supposed to preserve jobs and programs in hard times. The governor faced a choice to raise taxes higher and close even more homes for the mentally disabled, or accept an easy grant. He chose the money. It was the right call.

The real scandal, however, is the governor's refusal to support more stimulus when it's so obvious that his state needs it. Barbour has praised "a job-creation program the stimulus helped fund" and applied for $98 million in additional education funding. What's more, in an interview with WSJ's Deborah Solomon, "he said he has continually warned residents and legislators that 2012 is likely to be the most painful budget year yet because of the falloff in stimulus funds."

mississippi budget.pngIn short, he acknowledges that the stimulus helped his state. He acknowledges that the state needs more help (see WSJ chart to the left). But he doesn't think his state should get any more help, even though it is cheaper than ever for the United States to borrow money to help states.

Let's zoom out from Mississippi for a moment. Across the country, state and local government have cut hundreds of thousands of jobs over the last year, even with Washington's help. In 2011, they face a projected shortfall of 19 percent of their budgets, and the help is running out. Still in Washington, our appetite for more spending is poisoned by media appearances from people like Haley Barbour, who criticize the stimulus even as they know how desperate their states are for money that investors are willing to lend us.

This is not an argument for papering over bloated state budgets infinitely, nor is it an argument against long-term fiscal reform at the state and federal level. Those are very necessary. In the next five years, we should think about restructuring unemployment benefits, Medicaid cost sharing, and pension plans. In the short term, the US economy is being slowed by state economies desperately cutting jobs and raising taxes. That's a now-problem, and we can fix it now.

In upcoming GOP presidential nominee debates, Gov. Barbour's use of stimulus money could be an albatross around his neck. That's a shame. The real albatross around governors necks is the recession, which is raising their obligations to needy citizens while at the same time reducing the revenue they need to provide those obligations. This is exactly where you want the federal government to borrow cheap money and provide acute relief. But we're not doing it.

I suppose there is an attractive kind of puritan pureness in watching governors accept painful choices. But there is no real honor in accepting total pain when you have another choice.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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