Miss. lawmakers negotiate on employment agency, jobless pay

Published 5:43 pm Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Voter identification hit another roadblock Tuesday in the Mississippi House, and lawmakers appeared to do little work on fixing Medicaid’s finances even as Gov. Haley Barbour pressured them to accept his budget plan.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said Republican Barbour is trying to put a “sick tax” on patients in hospital beds. McCoy said some people fear the governor’s plan could increase monthly premiums for those with private insurance.

“Unless there is some indication that the governor and lieutenant governor are willing to compromise, then I’m going to recommend to the House that we go home and stop wasting taxpayers’ money,” McCoy said in a written statement.

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Barbour responded: “The public expects the House of Representatives to get the job done before it quits and goes home.”

Medicaid is a government health program for the needy, elderly and disabled, and for low-income families with children. It faces a $90 million shortfall for the budget year that starts July 1.

The Senate has approved Barbour’s plan to combine three old taxes into one tax to be paid by hospitals — a change that would increase what many hospitals pay. The House, though, has rejected Barbour’s plan and has voted to dip into the state’s financial reserves in a few months if Medicaid is still short of money.

Barbour responded to the House vote Friday by saying if legislators don’t accept his hospital tax plan, he will slash millions of dollars from Medicaid in July. Barbour said the cuts could put some hospitals into financial jeopardy.

The House and Senate continued wrangling Tuesday over other issues in their special session.

A small group of negotiators was trying to agree on a plan to keep the state employment agency open after the end of this month. And the two chambers were working on a separate proposal to increase the state’s weekly unemployment benefit.

Republicans on Tuesday tried — and failed — to withdraw a voter ID bill from the Elections Committee. It has been blocked there repeatedly by a Democratic chairman, Rep. Tommy Reynolds of Charleston.

It’s rare for lawmakers to circumvent a chairman. Even those who support a particular issue might vote against bypassing the committee process because they fear the move could be used against them one day.

Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, led the attempt to pull a voter ID bill out of committee and bring it straight to a debate of the full House.

“Make a tough vote today,” Mims urged his colleagues. “If somebody gets mad at you, they’ll get over it.”

However, after little discussion, the House voted 62-57 against bypassing the committee.

Voter ID is one of about a dozen issues Barbour is asking lawmakers to consider during the special session.

Supporters say ID would help ensure the integrity of elections, while opponents say the requirement could be used to intimidate older black voters who were once subject to Jim Crow laws.

The special session started May 21, but lawmakers have taken weekends off. Monday was the seventh work day of the session for the Senate and the sixth for the House.

The bills are Senate Bills 2004, 2013 and 2011; and House Bills 1 and 18.