When I interviewed Mississippi's Republican Gov. Haley Barbour for last week's Human Events, my first question offered him an opportunity to criticize how the government of neighboring Louisiana had responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Barbour diplomatically declined to take it.
Noting that former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown had defended himself in congressional testimony by arguing that Louisiana was "dysfunctional," while "the system worked in Mississippi and Alabama," I asked Barbour if he agreed. "Well, I don't know anything about Louisiana," he said. "So, I'm not knowledgeable to comment about there."
But later in our conversation when I brought up the $250 billion federal aid package proposed for Louisiana by that state's senators, Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, Barbour was incredulous.
"I don't know much about their proposal," he said. "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."
In fact, Barbour said Mississippi now estimates the total federal share of rebuilding Katrina-damaged areas of his state will be "well under $50 billion," and that the best estimate puts it "in the low $30s."
This is despite massive destruction in Mississippi. According to Barbour, 47 of the state's 82 counties have been declared major disaster areas. Forty percent of Mississippi families have applied for disaster assistance.
And it isn't as if Barbour is trying to short-change his state of its share of federal aid. The Stafford Act calls for the federal government to pay 75 percent of the cost of rebuilding hurricane-damaged public infrastructure, such as highways, sewers and ports. But Barbour would like the federal share to be even larger. "As I understand it," he said, "there have been 90-10 splits in the past, and that's what we would like to see."
Yet, Barbour vows Mississippi will not squander federal funds, and his record as governor suggests he will be good to his word. Before Katrina, Mississippi was budgeted to spend 1.75 percent less in nominal dollars this year than it did last year.