Haley Barbour's Bodyguard Boondoggle

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 12:11 PM EDT

Mississippi's roads are some of the most dangerous in the nation. According to the head of Mississippi's Department of Public Safety, that's the case because the state Highway Patrol is so short staffed and underfunded—in 2010, the patrol filled only 527 of 650 possible positions—in responding to crashes and injuries that "people's lives are at risk."

But the grim finances of Mississippi's Department of Public Safety roads haven't stopped Governor Haley Barbour from using state-funded highway patrollers as bodyguards on his many trips around the country and the world. While it's not uncommon for governors to use state troopers as bodyguards, it's Barbour's all-too-frequent jet-setting that's unusual. In 2010, Barbour, who's eyeing a presidential run in 2012, was traveling at least 175 days of the year, jetting to Israel; Park City, Utah; Washington, DC; Napa, California; and a dozen other cities, according to records obtained by the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger (PDF). From January 2010 to January 2011, the amount Barbour's bodyguards billed back to the Department of Public Safety—and ultimately Mississippi taxpayers—was $121,457 for hotels, food, and travel costs.

Barbour's extensive use of taxpayer-funded bodyguards comes as his state struggles to adequately fund critical public services used by most Mississippians. For instance, the Barbour administration and Mississippi's state legislature have underfunded the state's public schools by $520 million since 2004, when Barbour became governor; Barbour's 2012 budget recommendation (PDF) would reduce K-12 funding by 4.5 percent and higher ed funding by 3 percent. Other agencies, including the departments of Human Services and Mental Health, could be forced to cut back on child welfare and mental treatment services if the Barbour administration doesn't beef up its budget recommendations.

Barbour's jet-setting, and the taxpayer-borne costs that come with it, have lawmakers fuming. "He shouldn't be traveling 175 days a year—that's beyond the pale," says Cecil Brown, a Democratic legislator in Mississippi. "This is a guy spending his time fundraising for Republicans and running for president, and we don't think that's good public policy."