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Mississippi lawmakers end 2008 session

The marble hallways of the Mississippi Capitol echoed with silence Friday after lawmakers gaveled an end to their 2008 session, packed their belongings and left town.

They will be back in the next couple of months to take care of unfinished business.

Gov. Haley Barbour says he will call a special session before June 30 so lawmakers can consider a hospital tax to cover part of the Medicaid budget.

He also wants them to authorize the Mississippi Department of Employment Security to stay in business when the fiscal year starts July 1.

During the 3 1/2-month regular session, lawmakers plugged holes in the current state budget and approved a $5 billion spending plan for the coming year.

They also enacted several new laws, including strict requirements that employers check their workers’ immigration status.

A plan to authorize several new regional jails died late in the session, as did two gaming bills — one that would’ve restricted where new casinos can locate and another that would’ve made casino companies eligible for tax incentives for theme parks or other developments not directly tied to gambling.

State agencies periodically come up for review, and a bill to reauthorize the Mississippi Department of Employment Security died amid a dispute over all state agencies’ advertising practices. Some lawmakers are upset that the state spends thousands of dollars to run ads on conservative talk radio stations.

MDES handles job training and placement programs and distributes unemployment payments.

Many lawmakers believe that dispute over the employment agency killed a separate bill that would increase the weekly payments to people who are unemployed; a bill passed the House but died in the Senate.

Mississippi’s unemployment payment has been $210 a week since 2002. The bill would’ve increased that to $225 this July 1 and to $235 a year later.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said Friday “there are legitimate people who lose their jobs and need” unemployment benefits, but he has not supported increasing the weekly benefit.

“I get the feeling sometimes we’re incentivizing people not to work,” Bryant told reporters. “That would be a horrible position to take. But I’ve talked to people in factories and companies all the time who say ‘I can’t get people to come to work. That’s why I have to hire illegal immigrants.’ And here we are raising the amount of pay of people that are not going to work.”

Medicaid is a health program for the needy, aged and disabled and for low-income families with children. It covers about one in every four Mississippians. For every $1 the state spends on Medicaid, the federal government spends about $3.

Legislators approved Medicaid’s budget, and Barbour said he expects to sign it into law. The hospital tax affects the budget but is not part of the legislation that was just approved. It has to be handled separately because it would make a change in the general law that governs Medicaid.

Legislative financial officials say the first day of a special session costs $59,895. The tab for each subsequent day, without travel expenses, is $39,420. Only a governor can call a special session, and only he can set the agenda.

Bryant said that the state saved money by shortening the regular session from 120 days to 103, and those savings should cover some or all the costs of a special session.