Miss. gov’s frequent travels raise ire back home

Published 12:25 am Sunday, October 10, 2010

Where’s Haley? It’s not an easy question to answer these days.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is head of the Republican Governors Association and considering a 2012 presidential run, was out of state for all or part of 48 days during July, August and September, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. News reports show he was often campaigning for Republican candidates in other states.

State finance records also showed Barbour was out of state all or part of 145 days — nearly five months — during the state budget year that ended June 30.

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Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said the state benefits from the governor’s willingness to travel to work on economic projects, to testify at congressional hearings and to seek federal funding for projects such as Hurricane Katrina recovery.

“You do not have to sit in the governor’s chair in Jackson to be the governor,” Turner said. The governor “relentlessly stays plugged in to what is going on” when he’s out of state, Turner said.

Barbour was taking some personal time Friday and could not be reached for an interview, Turner said. He wouldn’t say whether Barbour was out of state.

The political trips have caused some friction back home.

A top Democratic state lawmaker and frequent critic of Barbour, Rep. Cecil Brown, said Friday that with teachers and state workers losing jobs because of a tight budget, Barbour should spend more time in Mississippi. Brown said scheduling meetings with the governor is difficult because Barbour is gone so often.

“It’s like trying to deal with ’Where’s Waldo?’ You just don’t know where he is or how to get in touch with him,” said Brown, who chairs the House Education Committee and is one of the leading budget writers.

The state keeps track of how many days the lieutenant governor, the Senate president pro tempore or the House speaker are paid as acting governor when Barbour is outside Mississippi. It’s a quirk in state law left over from the days before cell phones could keep a governor in instant communication with his staff.

AP obtained the payroll records all of the previous budget year and the first quarter of the current budget year through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Barbour doesn’t release his public schedule and his staff rarely announces his travels.

Records show he was outside Mississippi for all or part of 28 days during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, including April 20, when a rig exploded and killed 11 workers. Oil gushed into the gulf 85 days, until BP managed to stop the flow with a temporary cap on July 15.

Barbour remained calm during the oil spill. While critics said he was dismissive of potential environmental damage, few knocked him for being out of state while BP worked to contain the underwater gusher. Barbour often said much of the oil in the Gulf was simply a sheen floating on the surface and that national media reports incorrectly portrayed the Mississippi coastline as being ankle-deep in oil.

Barbour became head of the Republican Governors Association in June 2009, when South Carolina’s Mark Sanford stepped down after revelations about Sanford’s extramarital affair. Sanford’s travels got him into trouble when he ditched his security detail and disappeared for a secret weeklong tryst with a mistress in Argentina.

Barbour is term-limited and can’t run for governor in 2011. As head of the RGA, Barbour’s campaign appearances for candidates appear to have increased during the past few months.

Barbour traveled to Tulsa, Okla., on Aug. 24 to campaign for U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, the Republican nominee for Oklahoma governor. On Sept. 19, Barbour campaigned in Kentucky for tea party favorite and U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul.

On Sept. 27, Barbour spoke at a fundraising breakfast in Manchester, N.H., then traveled to Portland, Maine, to raise money at a luncheon for Maine’s Republican gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage. That night, Barbour spoke at a New York Republican Party fundraiser.

The next morning, Barbour appeared in Washington, D.C., to discuss recovery from the Gulf spill. A bleary-eyed Barbour was back in Mississippi later that afternoon to present state public service medals to seven leaders from religion, business and politics.

Marty Wiseman, a political scientist at Mississippi State University, said Barbour’s travels weren’t that unusual.

“He’s looking beyond the end of his gubernatorial time and he understands probably better than anybody that you can’t wait until you walk out the door to decide what role you’ll have next,” Wiseman said.

Barbour worked in the Reagan White House during the 1980s and was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993-97. He was a high-profile Washington lobbyist before being elected governor in 2003, and campaigned on being able to use his national contacts to help Mississippi — a perpetually poor state that often ranks low in education and high on health problems such as obesity.

Republican state Sen. Terry Brown, one of Barbour’s allies and no relation to Rep. Cecil Brown, said the governor’s out-of-state travels have helped attract jobs to Mississippi.

“He’s been here for all the important things we’ve done,” Terry Brown said, including a one-day special session in August when lawmakers approved Barbour’s request for a multimillion dollar incentive package to help a Texas company build a factory in Mississippi to turn trees into biofuel.