Gov. takes aim on legislature

Published 10:31 pm Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour is accusing some lawmakers of violating their oath of office by letting the new budget year start next week with $90 million gap in Medicaid.

Lawmakers respond that they’re not violating any constitutional provisions or state laws — but that Barbour is ignoring his own record of approving budgets with “planned deficits” in the past few years.

Longtime Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, said the governor is making Medicaid a “manufactured crisis.” Reynolds said it’s common for Medicaid, prisons and some other state programs to start a budget year millions of dollars short.

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Those holes are filled several months into the year, often using extra money that becomes available when the economy is healthy and tax collections are higher than expected.

“Under this administration … we’ve had deficit appropriations a lot of times,” Reynolds said Friday.

Barbour was not available to take questions from Capitol reporters Friday, but his spokesman Pete Smith issued a news release late in the afternoon. In it, the governor said the state constitution requires a balanced budget and lawmakers “can’t ignore the constitution just because they are afraid to make the tough decisions of governing.”

Legislators and staff attorneys say Mississippi is required by state law, but not by the constitution, to balance its budget by the end of a fiscal year — in this case, by June 30, 2009.

Reynolds said the section of the constitution cited by the governor’s office simply requires individual budget bills to specify how much money is being spent; the bills can’t say a program will get as much money as it needs.

The exchange between Barbour and his legislative critics Friday is the latest in a protracted political fight over Medicaid, a health care program for the needy.

Lawmakers are in special session and have left the Capitol until Wednesday, a day after the new budget year begins. Medicaid officials say the program needs another $90 million to get through the coming 12 months.

Barbour, a Republican, wants lawmakers to restructure some hospital taxes to cover the shortfall, but many Democrats say they want to increase the cigarette excise tax instead.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant on Thursday blocked consideration of the tobacco tax during the current special legislative session.

Only a governor can set the agenda for a special session. Bryant ruled that Barbour’s agenda specifically said a tax on Medicaid providers could be the only solution considered.

Barbour has said he will order cuts in Medicaid services this summer if legislators don’t pass his plan. He has said he might announce cuts next week. Those would take effect in August, after a 30-day response period.

With the tobacco tax apparently blocked for now, the Democrat-controlled House voted Friday, largely along party lines, to tell Barbour not to make any cuts in the program until at least February. Some lawmakers argued the Legislature can’t tell the governor what to do.

The House plan appears to have little traction in the Senate.

“All it does it put off coming to grips with what we need to do,” said Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who is working across party lines to try to pass the governor’s plan.

The federal government told Mississippi in 2005 that the state had to stop using part of a complicated formula to pay for Medicaid. Since the early 1990s, the state had collected a tax from hospitals, labeled the money as part of the Medicaid budget and leveraged that to pull in extra money from the federal government.

Over the past three years, the state has patched the program by using millions of dollars from other parts of the state budget — including some federal money the state received to cover increased Medicaid expenses after Hurricane Katrina. In some years, the state’s general tax collections have been higher than expected, and some of that extra money has been put into Medicaid. Barbour says the program’s budget formula has been in limbo for too long and he wants a solution now. The Mississippi Hospital Association endorsed Barbour’s tax plan in early June. Since then, some hospital administrators have said they oppose it because they believe it will hurt their budgets.