Miss. lawmakers to restart session Thursday

Published 4:55 pm Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mississippi lawmakers say they’re pessimistic about solving Medicaid’s financial problems anytime soon.

Legislators return to the Capitol Thursday afternoon to continue a special session that began in late May. They’ve been on break the past three weeks, and Medicaid is still their biggest unresolved issue.

The health program for the needy has a $90 million shortfall in state money for the budget year that begins Tuesday.

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Republican Gov. Haley Barbour is pushing a plan to restructure hospital taxes to fill the gap. Leaders in the Democrat-controlled House say they want to increase tobacco taxes instead.

Mississippi currently has one of the lowest cigarette excise tax rates in the nation, at 18 cents a pack.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers say they believe the opponents in the Medicaid fight are entrenched in their positions and they see little chance for compromise.

Barbour says he’ll eliminate some Medicaid services if no solution is found, but some lawmakers say there is no need to make cuts anytime soon. They point out that in recent years, Medicaid has gone several months with significantly larger budget shortfalls — about $270 million one year. Those gaps were filled some years by federal money sent to Medicaid for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said Barbour’s hospital tax plan is the equivalent of a tax hike on the middle class.

“In the quietness of the hour after we have passed a bill and the governor has signed it into law, (hospitals) are going to pass that on to the patients, thereby passing it on to the insurance providers who, in turn, will not suffer a loss. They will simply increase the premium,” Blackmon said Wednesday.

“That is going to be a tax, no matter what he calls it, on the individuals and not the hospitals,” Blackmon said.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said he doesn’t understand why House leaders are digging in against the governor’s proposal, which has passed the Senate.

“I understand their passion for a tobacco tax, and I feel like they will probably get a tobacco tax of some size next year,” Fillingane said. “Why all the obstinacy and vitriol over the issue this session?”

Barbour appointed a commission earlier this year to study the state tax structure. The group is to release recommendations later this summer.

Barbour told reporters in late May that he believes the commission will recommend a tobacco tax increase, combined with a decrease in some other kind of tax.

Barbour has blocked other proposals to increase cigarette taxes the past three years. Critics point to Barbour’s background as a Washington lobbyist for tobacco companies and suggest he is trying to help his former clients. Barbour has repeatedly denied it.

The Mississippi Hospital Association has endorsed the governor’s plan. However, some members of the association also have said they’d prefer a cigarette tax increase.