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Miss. House increases proposal for unemployment benefit

The Mississippi House has expanded the debate over unemployment benefits, adding a sweetener for people who earned too little on the job to qualify for the maximum compensation after being laid off.

Both chambers on Wednesday also worked on the governor’s plan to fix the Medicaid budget.

“We’re here to work, not play. And I know everyone is ready to work,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi.

Gov. Haley Barbour summoned legislators back to the Capitol last week, just a month after the 3 1/2-month regular session ended. The governor has the power to call a special session and set the agenda, but he has little control over how long lawmakers work. It’s unclear when the special session will end.

The House on Wednesday expanded a plan to increase the state’s unemployment benefit. The maximum payment of $210 a week is the lowest in the nation.

A bill that passed the Senate last week would add $15 a week to the maximum this July 1 and another $10 a year later.

The House plan would add $20 a week to the maximum this July 1 and another $20 a week a year later. The House added a 10 percent increase for people who don’t collect the maximum amount.

The weekly unemployment benefit is based on how much money a worker made before losing a job, and a person would have to have earned at least $12.75 an hour to qualify for the $210 a week in unemployment. Someone who had earned the minimum wage of $5.85 an hour would qualify for $117 a week in unemployment.

Under the House plan, the person now getting $117 a week would receive about $12 more.

Rep. Sherra Hillman Lane, D-Waynesboro, said people in her south Mississippi district have lost jobs because of factory closings or cutbacks. She said they need the unemployment payments so they can cover daily living expenses, from mortgages to groceries.

“It goes right back into your community. It is actually an economic stimulus package,” Lane said.

The Senate could accept the House changes, but it’s more likely that the two chambers will end up in negotiations to reach a compromise plan.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted 41-7 to approve Barbour’s proposal to fill a $90 million hole in the Medicaid budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. House leaders said they want time to study the issue before voting.

Under the Medicaid plan Barbour explained to lawmakers Tuesday, hospitals would have to pay a single new tax to replace three old taxes. The new tax would be based on days of patient care a hospital provides. One person in a hospital for five days would count as five patient care days. One of the taxes under the old formula was a bed tax, and a hospital would pay a daily tax regardless of whether a patient is in the bed.

The governor said for every $1 the hospitals put in collectively under the new plan, they would get about $6 in return.

Medicaid provides health coverage for the needy, aged, blind and disabled and for low-income families with children. It is paid with federal and state money. Because Mississippi is a poor state, it gets a generous federal match. For every $1 the state pays, the federal government pays nearly $4.

The federal government said several years ago that Mississippi had to stop using part of the Medicaid formula that had been in place since the early 1990s, but the state has delayed fixing the problem by using other sources, including millions of dollars the federal government sent for Medicaid after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The temporary solutions ran out this year, and legislators ended their regular session in April without resolving how to cover the final $90 million for Medicaid for the budget year that starts July 1.

The Mississippi Hospital Association has paid a consultant $350,000 to come up with the proposed new formula.

In other action at the Capitol, the House and Senate have passed similar bills that would authorize the state to provide nearly $88.3 million to help the state compete for a new federal laboratory that will study animal diseases. The two chambers must agree on a single bill before anything can go to the governor.

The bills are Senate Bills 2011, 2013 and 2012 and House Bill 12.