Miss. legislators might bypass gov on stimulus

Published 11:45 pm Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gov. Haley Barbour’s refusal to accept all of Mississippi’s federal stimulus money could lead to a showdown at the state Capitol as lawmakers consider an attempt to bypass his decision in coming weeks.

On Wednesday, Barbour said he wouldn’t accept about $50 million in unemployment compensation that Mississippi could receive as part of its $2.5 billion share of the federal stimulus package.

He said to get the money, the state would have to change its unemployment laws to give compensation to people who only work part-time. Only full-time workers are currently eligible for unemployment benefits.

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“Nobody knows how many people will come out of the woodwork and say ’I’d be willing to work part-time if you let me collect unemployment benefits,”’ Barbour said.

His definitive stance will likely force a standoff at the Capitol because the federal stimulus bill includes language authorizing state lawmakers to accept federal money even if their governors object.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, a Democrat from Rienzi, has said he would push to overturn Barbour’s decision.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said he would oppose any attempt.

“I also want to make sure the stimulus package does not turn out to be a Trojan Horse that will unleash burdensome federal mandates on the hard-working taxpayers of Mississippi,” Bryant said in a statement this week.

Barbour is among a handful of governors, mostly Republican, who have said they would reject some stimulus money. Barbour had 45 days after the bill was signed to accept all the money. President Barack Obama signed the package into law on Feb. 17.

Barbour said Mississippi won’t have to change any of its laws for all of its unemployed workers to get an extra $25 in weekly payments; the state will accept that part of the stimulus money. He said the state also will get $3.5 million in unemployment administrative money.

The governor said changing the state laws to include part-time workers would result in a higher tax on employers once the federal money runs out in about two years. That’s because a tax paid by employers is what provides the state’s unemployment compensation. To maintain benefits for part-time workers, the employers would face an estimated tax increase of about $13 million, Barbour said.

McCoy has dismissed the governor’s concerns. He and other House members say the state could simply change the laws back to exclude part-time workers once the federal money runs out.

“He’s looking for a bear and a wolf somewhere down the road,” McCoy said of Barbour, adding that he’s fielded numerous calls from residents concerned about the state forgoing stimulus money.

House members also are researching whether there’s a way the state can get the money without changing any laws, said Rep. Chuck Espy, a Democrat from Clarksdale.

Analysts from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review will meet with a House committee Thursday to discuss the stimulus package.