Governor: Special session to start May 21

Published 12:09 am Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour is calling lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session starting Wednesday.

He wants them to keep the state employment agency in business and tackle three other issues. Medicaid financing is not part of his initial call, but could be added before next Wednesday.

The issues were left unresolved when the 3 1/2-month regular session ended in mid-April.

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“It is critical that the Mississippi Department of Employment Security be reauthorized,” Barbour said Friday in a news release. “MDES has been recognized as among the best in the nation at placing job applicants and its one-stop system has been praised as among the most efficient and effective in the nation.”

Only a governor can call a special session, and only he can set the agenda.

State agencies come up for review every few years, and the Mississippi Department of Employment Security was up this year.

During the regular legislative session, House leaders tried to change the bill to keep MDES alive. They wanted to tighten regulations for advertising by all state agencies.

Because of the dispute, the bill died and the agency is in danger of going out of existence July 1.

The agency handles job training programs and distributes unemployment benefits.

MDES gets all its money from the federal government, but it needs state legislative permission to stay in existence.

Barbour told several hundred people at a recent Mississippi Economic Council meeting that if MDES goes out of existence, employers will have to pay significantly more for unemployment insurance taxes — from 0.8 percent of payroll to 6.2 percent — because a federal tax credit will disappear.

Pete Fleming, director of the office of state systems for the U.S. Labor Department in Atlanta, told members of the Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee this week that the loss of the tax credit could cost the state’s employers more than $400 million a year.

“It would be unthinkable for Mississippi’s employers to have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes or for beneficiaries to be denied services because MDES is hamstrung by a totally unrelated issue,” Barbour said.

Medicaid is a health program for the needy, aged and disabled and for low-income families with children. The program is facing a $90 million budget hole for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and Barbour has said he wants lawmakers to approve a hospital bed tax to fill the gap.

Medicaid covers about one in every four Mississippians. For every $1 the state spends on the program, the federal government spends about $3.

The health program was expected to be the main item on the special session agenda, but Barbour said he’s not yet ready to take it up because work on the solution continues.

Other items Barbour gave legislators to work on are improving a metal recycling bill that Barbour vetoed May 12, the prohibition of casino expansion beyond counties that already have casinos or have been approved for them in the past and making technical adjustments to current law allowing toll roads.

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.