Gov. Haley R. Barbour is convinced Mississippi’s economic future is brighter than ever, in part because employment has already reached pre-Katrina levels.

In a nearly two-hour discussion with a handful of newspaper editors and publishers on a recent Friday over a working lunch of muffaletta sandwiches, bow tie pasta, cookies and iced tea in a conference room in his executive suite atop the E.T. Woolfolk Building in downtown Jackson, Barbour characterized his two and a half years in office as reform-minded.

Touting a projected $100 million in cash reserves, the first-term Republican governor said the state has not been in better financial shape since the now late Gov. Daniel Kirkwood Fordice, a fellow member of the GOP, left office in 2000.

The governor cautioned about one-time monies spiking state revenues — like the $9 billion in cash in the wake of Katrina, noting that another $4 billion in federal grants to Coast homeowners will be forthcoming.

Barbour told the gathering that when he took office he inherited a $720 million budget deficit from the Musgrove administration, including $80 million in unpaid Medicaid bills.

The state lost 38,000 jobs in the four years Musgrove, a Democrat, was governor, Barbour pointed out.

In February, the state was back to pre-Katrina employment figures, the governor said. Since January 2004, Mississippi has gained 20,000 jobs, even with the 60,000 lost immediately after Katrina.

“I’m confident we’ll have record employment in Mississippi either this calendar year or at least within the next 12 months,” Barbour said.

Tort reform, an issue Barbour campaigned on, is one of the most important jobs creation issues, the governor told reporters.

“Tort reform has helped us. We’ve passed the most offensive tort reform bill in the country,” Barbour said.

Doctors are coming back, the state’s principal medical liability carrier cut rates 5 percent and gave a 10 percent rebate, he said.

What’s more, businesses report they can get general liability insurance and it’s costing less, the governor said.

Another reform he outlined was employment security and getting the office under his control. Since then, there has been a 35 percent increase in jobs placement and the Legislature has doubled spending to $26 million for the community colleges that administer the programs, a figure that could go as high as $35 million this year, Barbour said.

Personal income is going up, more people are working and the result is more taxable income, higher tax receipts “without raising anybody’s taxes,” Barbour declared.

The state economist is predicting 11 percent increase in state revenue this year, and since March revenues have gone up faster than that.

Barbour commended the Legislature for its bipartisanship and spending control, — expenses up only seven tenths of a percent — even while revenues are rising.

Barbour pointed to several key measures of his that passed this legislative session.

Since he has been governor Barbour said state funding for K-12 school districts has increased $323 million, or 19 percent. In addition to this funding increase, state officials have kept the promise of two consecutive 8 percent increases in teacher pay.

In his State of State address in January, the governor said his biggest spending priority was to restore higher education funding, which for universities was cut 7 percent in the previous administration and 17 percent on the community college level.

Meanwhile, universities have experienced a nearly 15 percent increase in enrollment and the community colleges nearly 25 percent.

This session universities received 16 percent more, or $90 million, but since most of that is earmarked for pay increases officials say they will still have to raise tuition. Community colleges received a 12 percent funding increase.

Barbour mentioned the first substantial state pay raise in six years using realignment, comparing the private sector and the average wages of public employees in neighboring states. For example, state troopers will receive a $5,000 raise. The minimum raise for a state employee is $1,500.

Barbour again ruled out a run for the White House in 2008, saying the events of Katrina intervened providentially and that he feels a strong commitment to guide Mississippi through the rebuilding phase.

“The biggest thing I’ve got to do right now is make sure that we get all the resources we need from the federal government and that we use them wisely, effectively and with accountability,” Barbour said, nothing that no other state has ever received the billions in aid Mississippi’s Congressional delegation has secured.