Lawmakers recess 3 weeks over Medicaid impasse

Published 4:20 pm Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lawmakers approved bills increasing Mississippi’s unemployment benefits and reauthorizing the agency that distributes those checks before recessing Wednesday for three weeks because of a stalemate over a funding fix for Medicaid.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said Medicaid will be the priority when the special session resumes June 26. He said the House, Senate and Gov. Haley Barbour have been unable to agree on how to plug a $90 million funding hole in the program’s budget for next fiscal year.

Barbour has proposed restructuring the taxes hospitals pay for the program, but the House has balked at the plan, calling it a “sick tax.” The House’s proposals include increasing cigarette and liquor taxes or dipping into the rainy day fund.

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“We do not understand the unwillingness of the governor and Senate to compromise,” McCoy said Wednesday.

Barbour, in an e-mailed statement, said he hopes the House will approve the hospital tax plan when the lawmakers return.

The Senate has approved Barbour’s hospital tax. Senate President Pro Tempore Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, said “it’s very doubtful” the Senate would consider the House proposals when they return later this month.

However, 23 of the Senate’s 27 Democrats released a statement on Wednesday that said they would support a cigarette tax as the first step to fund Medicaid before a hospital tax is implemented.

Barbour has said if legislators don’t accept his tax plan, he’ll slash millions of dollars from Medicaid and the cuts could put some hospitals in financial trouble. Medicaid serves about a fourth of the state’s population, including the elderly, disabled, and children.

The special session’s recess came after the two chambers approved a bill to boost the weekly jobless compensation by $25 over a two-year span, but only for high-earning workers. Mississippi has the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation.

The Senate held the jobless benefits bill for more debate, but it’s expected to reach Gov. Haley Barbour’s desk for his signature.

Currently, the most an unemployed Mississippi worker can get is $210 a week, a maximum that hasn’t changed since 2002. That amount would increase by $20, beginning July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. A $5 additional increase would go into effect in July 2009.

Much of the opposition to the bill came from lawmakers representing the impoverished Mississippi Delta or areas that are struggling with plant closures and other job losses. The bill would only affect workers making $10.51 or more per hour. However, it calls for a legislative study this summer of how the state could provide an increase for all workers, including those earning minimum wage.

Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, whose district lies in the Delta, argued the legislation isn’t fair to poor people who have lost their jobs but still must contend with high gas and food prices.

Sen. Eric Powell, D-Corinth, who represents a conservative district in north Mississippi and presented the bill to the chamber, said he would have liked to give an across-the-board increase, but officials with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security were unable to say how such a proposal would affect the jobless fund.

“We tried to look at this bill to cover everyone, even those that made $5.85. It was hard to do that,” Powell said. “Somebody is going to be left out. Life is not fair.”

Mississippi has one of the most solvent jobless funds in the nation, according to a report released by the online publication Powell said Mississippi’s fund has $718 million. He said federal law requires the state to maintain at least $500 million in the fund that generates money from business taxes. The proposed $25 jobless benefit increase would cost about $24 million, he said.

Also on Wednesday, lawmakers approved a bill reauthorizing the state Department of Employment Security, which handles job training programs and distributes unemployment benefits.

The bills are Senate Bill 2011, House Bill 1, and House Bill 17.

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