When Gov.-elect Ray Mabus pledges that "Mississippi will never be last again," he's not just whistling Dixie. He's talking a combination of governmental restructuring, educational reform and long-term planning that, if he can sell it, might actually move his state out of the economic doldrums.

On a recent stop through Washington (he had been in New York in an effort to put some state financing together) he outlined his plans and priorities.

His first effort, he said, will be on the state's budget. "We will have to spend the money first on education. Mississippi is not a wealthy state, but we can be competitive in a couple of areas. Education can be the one thing we are nationally competitive in; that's our only way out of the basement."

His second priority will be to reduce the size of the executive branch from the present 135 state agencies to no more than 15. "I think that will save some money," said Mabus, who came to public attention as a crusading state auditor, "but the main purpose is to try to hold somebody accountable."

Finally, he said, he wants to unify county governments, which now operate on a "beat" system of five independent legislative and budgetary fiefdoms that are inefficient, costly and graft-prone.

To a displaced Mississippian, perhaps the most interesting thing about a conversation with the 39-year-old Mabus is how seldom the question of race comes up. It isn't that Mabus is insensitive to race; he can't be, having swept into office with 90 percent of the black vote and less than half of the white vote. Rather, he seems to accept as a given that the progress he seeks for the state will necessarily entail the involvement of all its citizens. Blacks figure prominently, if frequently tacitly, in all the major plans this new-breed politician has for Mississippi.

His soft-pedaling of race, he says, is a factor of his youth. "I am the first governor of Mississippi who came to public life after the civil rights movement, after the Voting Rights Act. Another generation has come along. Every candidate for office in Mississippi actively sought black and white votes. You can't win if you don't. I got less than half the white vote and won."

And he didn't win by selling himself as the leading racial liberal. "My Republican opponent, 25 years older than I, traveled the state in the '60s in an effort to keep the public schools open. He's always been on the right side. Indeed, the last three people in the race {Mabus was in a Democratic runoff election} were saying the same kinds of things. In fact, all three are Ivy League educated, for whatever that's worth. The point is, if you add up the votes, Mississippians voted virtually 100 percent for change."

For Mabus, change begins with education. Notwithstanding the relative poverty of his state, he has pledged to bring teacher pay up to the regional average, for reasons of both justice and pragmatism. "We entrust teachers with the most important thing we have -- our future, our children -- and while we will never pay them commensurate with that responsibility, we ought to get a whole lot closer.

"But the other thing is that of every three teachers we train in our universities, two don't teach in Mississippi. Either they leave the state or they leave the profession. We just can't afford that anymore." He has pledged to raise $200 million in new revenues (without raising taxes), half of it to improve the university and junior college system, half to equalize teacher pay.

"We can't go on being last in education, even if we have to almost reinvent education. We were the last state to pass {mandatory} kindergarten. Now kindergarten won't help the economy of the state of Mississippi for at least 20 years, but then it will. Children who go to kindergarten are much more likely to stay in school and do better when they get out. Now that we've moved on kindergarten, we have to look at the rest of the system. That's a long payout, but it's something we have to do -- even if it means leaving some other things undone. We've got to prepare educated people, not just technocrats, not just people who can do a specific job, but people who can think and move from job to job as the economy changes."

And he is determined to change the economy: both by going after out-of-state industry and by increasing local entrepreneurial opportunity. "In our bid for the supercollider {which the state apparently has lost} we put in a 15 percent minority set-aside. We'll be doing the same thing on state contracts. I intend to go after high-quality industry from outside the state and around the world, not just smokestack chasing but quality industry. But most of our new jobs start inside the state, so we have to have programs for business expansion, for technical assistance and capital. We've got to reach out to minorities and women and get them into entrepreneurship."

Nobody ever got rich betting that a Mississippi governor would move his state to the vanguard of education and economic development. But if Mabus can sell his program to a constituency that seems ready for change, I wouldn't bet against him.