Musgrove, Wicker defend Miss. records of service

Published 1:23 pm Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The candidates for Trent Lott’s old Senate seat say their records are being distorted — by each other and by the opposing national parties that are pumping money into the special election.

Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Roger Wicker met separately Monday with the editorial board of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. The newspaper’s Web site carried live video of the back-to-back interviews.

Musgrove, who served as governor from January 2000 to January 2004, said Legislative Budget Office records prove he balanced Mississippi’s budget annually, as required by law. Republican ads say Musgrove left the state millions in the hole.

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“We balanced the budget every year,” Musgrove said. “There is a balance remaining each year, we did not raise taxes. And that is a fact.”

Musgrove served during the national economic downturn that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With a combination of anemic state tax collections and increases in spending for education and Medicaid, Musgrove and lawmakers often struggled to balance the budget. The state’s rainy day fund shrunk considerably during that time.

Democrats are accusing Wicker of participating in a “pay-to-play” system in which his former staff members went on to work for companies that received federal contracts. They say executives in those companies have given campaign contributions to Wicker.

Wicker, who was first elected to a U.S. House seat from north Mississippi in 1994, said Monday that Democrats are wrong to say he has been corrupted by Washington and that “somehow there is a quid pro quo in terms of contributions that I received.”

Wicker said he has received campaign contributions from executives of companies in the state, but he said there’s nothing wrong with that.

“The things that I’ve been criticized for have, in most cases, created jobs for Mississippians,” Wicker said.

Mississippi’s current governor, Republican Haley Barbour, is a former Washington lobbyist who unseated Musgrove in 2003. Barbour tapped Wicker to temporarily fill a Senate seat after the GOP’s Lott retired to become a lobbyist last December.

The winner of the Wicker-Musgrove race on Nov. 4 will serve the final four years of the six-year term.

Both national parties covet the seat in politically conservative Mississippi, a state that has gone Republican in every presidential election since 1980 but where Democrats still win most local offices. Democrats are trying to strengthen their majority in Washington, and Republicans are trying to hold onto the seat Lott first won 20 years ago.

Musgrove on Monday criticized Wicker for supporting “earmarks” — federal spending for pet projects. Musgrove said if he’s elected, he will “fight day and night for projects that will benefit Mississippi through the regular, normal appropriations process.”

He said lobbyists have too much influence over earmarks.

“If a project is good and it’s valid, it ought to be able to stand on its own,” Musgrove said. “It’s the insider, pay-to-play system that’s making Washington corrupt.”

Wicker said Mississippi benefits from having a congressional delegation that will bring home federal money for defense contracts and other projects. Mississippi’s other U.S. senator, Republican Thad Cochran, is the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

“I can guarantee you if Thad Cochran and I weren’t fighting for that small portion of job-creation money and disease-fighting money, Texas and California and the other big states that really have a lot of bureaucrats, they would be happy to spend that money instead of us,” Wicker said.