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Miss. House votes to bypass governor on stimulus

After a three-hour debate that stretched from Pharisees to fried bologna, the Democratic-controlled Mississippi House voted Wednesday to bypass Republican Gov. Haley Barbour so the state can get its full share of federal stimulus money.

Only a relatively small portion of the state’s $2.8 billion from the stimulus package is in question. Barbour says he’ll reject he’ll reject about $56 million that would provide unemployment compensation to part-time workers.

Mississippi only allows payments to people willing to work full time, and Barbour said he doesn’t want to change state policies to get temporary federal money. The former Republican National Committee chairman is one of only a few governors rejecting part of the stimulus plan that marks the first major legislative accomplishment of Democratic President Barack Obama.

All the sound in the fury in the House might signify nothing because both chambers of the Legislature must agree to circumvent the governor to accept the federal stimulus money on behalf of the state. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant presides over the Senate and says he supports Barbour’s decision.

“We understand how important that stimulus money is,” Bryant said in a short video sent to supporters Wednesday. “But we also understand there’s part of it we don’t want that’s going to tie strings to the state of Mississippi that make us pay people who don’t work, and we’re just not going to take that.”

All 69 House members who voted for the resolution are Democrats. Five Democrats and 47 Republicans voted against it, and one Republican was absent.

Barbour urged the Senate to quash the measure, saying in a statement it amounts to a tax increase on employers of $16 million a year.

“Business owners and employees across the state should know House Democrats today voted to increase taxes on employment. Any economist will tell you that’s about the worst thing you can do in a recession,” Barbour said. “I’m working as hard as I can to create jobs in Mississippi, and increasing taxes on job creation makes it harder to create more jobs.”

Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, was one of several lawmakers who used scripture to argue that Mississippi should accept all the federal money it can to help needy people during difficult economic times. He said he’d rather be a Good Samaritan who gets his clothes dirty to help people than a wealthy Pharisee who won’t dirty his fingers to aid the needy.

Mayo also talked about his own daughter, who holds three part-time jobs and takes night classes. Mayo said she is just one example of people juggling multiple responsibilities. He said such people should receive unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs and federal money is available.

“For anybody to say that woman is lazy doesn’t understand what most Mississippians are going through,” Mayo said.

Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, told her colleagues about her hankering last week for a sandwich with crispy fried bologna served on white bread — with mayonnaise and relish.

“The thought occurred to me there are residents all across the state of Mississippi, some of whom can’t eat a fried baloney sandwich,” Cockerham said. “While I wonder whether I want Wonder bread or Bunny bread, there are some who wonder where their next meal is coming from.”

Some who argued against the bill said they fear other parts of the federal package — not the unemployment benefits — could restrict religious groups from meeting on college campuses in buildings repaired with stimulus money.

Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb sided with the governor, saying companies would be stuck paying higher taxes to cover unemployment benefits when the stimulus money runs out.

“I’m tired of the federal government coming down here and solving our problems for us,” Mims said.

The debate took place the same day the state Department of Employment Security announced Mississippi’s January unemployment rate had hit 9 percent, up from 7.6 percent in December.

Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, said people are losing jobs as companies downsize and factories close.

“Are these shiftless bums who live a life on the dole? No, they are not,” Evans said. “Despite their best efforts, there’s no jobs available to them.”

The resolution is House Concurrent Resolution 64.