Miss. Medicaid session to continue Aug. 4

Published 1:26 am Friday, July 4, 2008

Miss. Medicaid session to continue Aug. 4

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is giving lawmakers a month off from a special session, and he’s criticizing them for failing to fill a budget gap in the state’s health care program for the poor.

“The Legislature made no progress this week on finding a fair, permanent, sustainable funding solution for Medicaid,” Barbour said in a news release Thursday. “The Legislature does not have to be in session for work on this vital issue to continue, and there is no reason taxpayers should have to pay for a stalled legislative process.”

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The House and Senate had planned to return next week to continue their on-again, off-again special session. Hours after lawmakers left the Capitol to start the Fourth of July holiday, Barbour announced that he is delaying their return until Aug. 4.

Medicaid covers about one in four Mississippians. Officials say the program needs another $90 million to get through the budget year that ends June 30, 2009.

Republican Barbour had said he would start cutting some Medicaid services unless lawmakers approve his proposal to restructure hospital taxes to help pay for the program — but the new state budget year started Tuesday, and Barbour hasn’t announced cuts.

The governor has asked a Hinds County chancery judge to rule on a lawsuit that dozens of hospitals filed against the state in 2006 over a separate hospital tax plan Barbour proposed then to help pay for Medicaid. Barbour said the judge might consider his request July 10.

Some House members say Barbour has manufactured a crisis. For the past several years, Medicaid and other programs have gone several months with multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls that were then filled by using federal money or by using higher-than-anticipated state tax collections.

The Republican-led Senate has passed Barbour’s hospital tax plan, but the Democratic-controlled House is pushing for a combination of hospital taxes and cigarette taxes.

Taxpayers have spent nearly $548,000 for the special session. Legislators have met sporadically since the end of May.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said Thursday that Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant had offered House leaders two proposals during private discussions, but the House negotiators rejected both.

Under one plan, Nunnelee said, if the House would accept the governor’s hospital tax proposal during this special session, Senate leaders would promise to pass a cigarette tax increase during the regular session that starts in January. Part of the cigarette tax revenue would be set aside for health care.

Nunnelee said under Bryant’s other proposal, the House would pass the governor’s hospital tax plan and the lieutenant governor would ask Barbour to expand the special session agenda to allow debate on a cigarette tax increase and an income tax decrease.

The governor decides what subjects lawmakers may consider in a special session.

Nunnelee said Bryant was proposing a 50-cents-per-pack increase in the cigarette excise tax, which at 18 cents a pack is now one of the lowest in the nation. Nunnelee said that would generate about $120 million, and $90 million of that could cover the revenue the state would lose by cutting the income tax Nunnelee said a person making $20,000 a year would get a $150 income tax reduction; married couples would get $300.

Barbour, however, has said that he will propose comprehensive changes in the state’s tax structure later this year. He has appointed a private commission to study taxes, and that group is to make recommendations by the end of the summer.