Capitol Burning: The War Between the Branches | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Capitol Burning: The War Between the Branches

Mississippi is known for many things: great authors, beautiful antebellum plantations, Sweet Potato Queens, civil rights troubles and a ridiculously tight state budget. In the poorest state in the country, how health care and education and other social programs will be funded is a fundamental question as the Legislature returns for the 2005 session this week, especially with a strong, ideological governor determined to raise nary a tax or fee. But the state will have to look at revenue; both how to raise it and spend it without cutting back on social programs that effectively benefit the constituents.

As a result, the Magnolia State's legislators are facing a Civil War-like divide between the state's executive and legislative branches. Once again, the biggest issues at the Capitol will be adequately funding K-12 education (while giving teachers salary increases they deserve) and restoring the Medicaid program, especially after Gov. Haley Barbour pushed a plan through last session that would have moved thousands of Mississippians known as Poverty Level Aged and Disabled (PLADs) off the state Medicaid plan and onto the federal Medicare rolls. (A federal judge stopped the move at the last minute.)
The legislative climate is hostile after two special sessions in which Barbour pressured the lawmakers through the media to make split-second decisions on vital matters, including major cuts, while refusing to budge a nano-inch on his pledge to "raise no new taxes." In the 2005 regular session, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck will be back holding the gavel with the majority-Republican Senate in her back pocket, and thus in Barbour's. They will square off with a scrappy-and-determined House of Representatives—officially the "House of the People"—the leadership of which is determined, in varying degrees and through a variety of strategies, to keep programs from education to Medicaid from being derailed and underfunded.

Amid this contentious climate, will the constituents' voices truly be heard? Not unless they know about the issues.

Two Legislators, Two Views

It is amazing how two men representing areas so close geographically can see things so differently. Talking with Sen. Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, and Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Hinds, you might think they're talking about different states, but they aren't. For the most part, the only thing they agree on is that the budget issue looms for the 2005 session.

"The budget is the issue that will influence everything we do this year," Ross said in an interview in December. "We are in a situation where we will have to prioritize. I believe we will have $150 million more this year than we did last year, so it is not a matter of us having less money. It is a matter of prioritizing spending to accommodate the increased amount of money."

When asked how we should prioritize spending without any tax or fee increases, Ross said that certain issues—basic education needs, police and security—are top priority. But he downplayed the idea that major services will be cut under Barbour's plan: "I agree with Gov. Barbour that we should prioritize human capital in the education area, which means school teachers' salaries, classroom supplies and instructional aids," he said. "We should fully fund that portion of the education system. I also agree that law enforcement and homeland security should not take any cuts. Everything else needs to be on the table for reductions, including the administration part of education, the construction part of education, every state agencies' contracts and travel. If we reduce just a little bit in every one of those areas, we will have a balanced budget."

Fleming agreed—at least on the centerpiece issue. "The budget will be the main issue," he said. "However, the most optimistic view is that we are at least $400 million in the hole and could be in for as much as $800 million. We in Mississippi are pretty much tapped out for what we can request and what we can cut."

Mississippi has to do something quickly to help shore up the budget, Fleming said. "We need to demand to raise the tobacco, alcohol, and gasoline taxes—I support the $1 tax increase for a pack of cigarettes. We need more progressive income taxes. We need to create retail sales tax for Internet sales, which could not only provide another $100 million to $140 million, but could keep more business in-state as well," he said.

Ross has a retort for those who support tax increases of any sort: "I strongly disagree when we have $150 million more this year and a 3.5 percent predicted rate-of-growth with the current tax structure. I am opposed to any tax increases."

The Medicaid Crisis

If a federal lawsuit hadn't been filed in late September, Gov. Haley Barbour's plan to remove more than 50,000 seniors and disabled Medicaid recipients from the Medicaid rolls would have come together.

The suit claimed the state failed to provide proper notice for the termination of Medicaid benefits, which is why the cuts, originally scheduled to take place July 1, were extended to Sept. 15 and, later, to Sept. 30. The suit also argued that the beneficiaries weren't prescreened to see if they would fall under another category. Though a plan was approved last spring to cut the PLAD-classified people, a federal waiver has been put into place for about 17,000. This waiver includes those who need anti-rejection drugs after organ transplants, those receiving chemotherapy, and those receiving kidney dialysis or anti-psychotic drugs, all of whom will continue to receive Medicaid.

On Oct. 14, an agreement was reached between parties in the lawsuit. The settlement delays any reduction of Medicaid benefits until at least Jan. 31, 2005, to see what the Legislature will do with it then. A bill to address these Medicaid recipients should be one of the first to come up in the House.

In December, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee released a budget proposal that suggested a reversal on the Medicaid-to-Medicare shift that would keep the PLADs on the state roll through the end of 2005—at which point the federal government will offer more aid through the increased prescription drug coverage that was signed into law in 2004. The committee recommended increasing the General Fund by $65 million to fund PLAD eligibles.

David Miller, a staff attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice, said, "The sick, the elderly and the disabled should not be the targets of fiscal policy," he continued. "We live in a society where we take care of the less fortunate. Secondly, it is just bad fiscal policy. For every $1 the state puts in they get $3 back from the federal government. The Medicaid program also injects jobs into the economy. It currently provides about 100,000 jobs in the state."

Interestingly, Barbour argued that same logic during the November special session—but in favor of a bill that would authorize bonds to help Northrop Grumman and other corporations. The bonds, Barbour said, are good legislation because those companies were matching the bond dollars they received—and, of course, creating jobs. Barbour, however, seemed unaffected by the 3-to-1 federal matching funds that the state receives for Medicaid—he pushed, instead, to move people off the state's rolls and onto federal programs.

"Medicaid is a looming crisis," Ross said. "Twenty-five to 30 percent of the state is receiving benefits, and it is increasing exponentially. The amount we are spending on Medicaid has doubled in the past four to five years; that's not sustainable. If we don't get control of it, we will not be able to provide quality healthcare to the truly needy. That means we are going to have to tighten the eligibility criteria, prioritize the types of service we give and look at cost-saving measures such as purchasing prescription drugs in bulk."

Conversely, Fleming said Mississippi should restore and keep the current recipients until the federal Medicare program has a full-fledged prescription drug program in 2006. "If Governor Barbour had been smart, he would have gotten all the PLAD people to sign up for the new Medicare program ahead of time, so they would be receiving more benefits," he said.

Fleming and Miller both said they hope Barbour will show restraint this session and not abuse his privileges provided by House Bill 1434—the reform plan that allowed him to make the initial cuts and waiver requests last summer.

Educating the State

Grass-roots parent and community groups all over the Magnolia State are petitioning the state to fully fund the state's responsibility to public K-12 education, using the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) as a benchmark. Just as the realities of the No Child Left Behind mandates are hitting the state, teachers are fleeing to neighboring states for better salaries and benefits, and many students—especially in largely minority areas—are packed into crowded classrooms with leaky ceilings and inadequate supplies.

This is the precise reason that the state Legislature passed MAEP seven years ago—to ensure that schools throughout the state were funded up to an "adequate" level. It's not about allowing waste and providing unneeded luxuries. The word "adequate" doesn't particularly suggest "ideal" or even "good." It's about the basics.

In the 2004 session, Barbour and the Senate defied state law and hit MAEP with cuts of more than $150 million. Barbour's budget plan for the 2005 session recommends 5 percent cuts to most state agencies, while only sparing schools somewhat. Though money for instruction won't be cut, money going to all other school expenses such as buses, food services, landscaping, construction of new facilities and administration will all face at least a 5 percent cut. Barbour's plan is to let the schools absorb all the cuts they can without actually reducing the amount of money spent on the learning process itself.

"The governor's proposed budget for education is about $65 million more than it was last year, with most of that going toward pay raises for teachers. I agree with his emphasis on the learning process," Ross said.

Education officials are worried about what will happen to school districts if MAEP isn't fully funded. "If you do not fund it, it will unravel," said Education Superintendent Henry Johnson at a House Education Committee meeting in December. Barbour's budget, he said, doesn't fund the basics—so those costs will be passed to the school districts.

At that meeting, House Education Committee Chairman Randy "Bubba" Pierce, D-Leakesville, took umbrage with the governor's argument that the state cannot afford to fund MAEP. "We do have the ability," he said. "We can redirect funds differently than the governor (would). … You cannot cut off the end of a blanket, sew it to the other end and make it longer."

The Legislative Budget Committee's plan is to fully fund the state's schools via the MAEP plan, using a formula designed to give all 152 school districts enough money to reach mid-level accreditation standards and ensure that each child receives an adequate opportunity.

However, even the Legislature's budget falls short of the $381.6 million education officials have requested to fully fund MAEP. And the MAEP shortfalls compound each year they don't receive full funding. "Last year we didn't put as much money as we wanted to in education," Fleming said. "Then, we waited until the end of the session. Since MAEP is not at the right level of funding at this time, schools are using their money for operating costs instead of pay raises."

The only thing the governor and lawmakers agree on is that the state has to keep its promise to raise teachers' salaries—which is separate funding from that needed for MAEP, even though it's all coming from the same pool. That means that, in essence, it's teacher pay raises vs. adequate funding.

The 8 percent raise and 5th increment of the pay raise package will cost the state about $97.5 million for the '06 Fiscal Year. This is supposed to be the final round of pay raises that would bring the average state teacher's salary up to the Southeastern regional average. But other states have been increasing teachers' pay in the last year, thus preventing our state from reaching its intended plateau.

Fleming is one of many returning to the Capitol this week loaded for bear on education. "It shouldn't be that if I go to a public school, I'm receiving an inferior education," he said. "Public schools are backed by the government, so other schools should be having to live up to our standards. For example, I know that the high school in Greenville is having problems with just basic air conditioning. How do you expect our kids to learn in an environment like that?"

Lawmakers, he said, should look at the connection between education and health care costs. "Barbour is not demanding that physical education be taught in schools. … My generation and the ones below are overweight for the most part, and we are one of the most obese states in the nation. Unless something is done about this, then we will run into more health-care costs in the long run."

Meeting Fire with Fire

Though there has been talk of solutions like a more progressive income tax, Internet sales tax and the like, one approach to increasing revenue has widespread support: raising the tobacco tax. Mississippi's current cigarette tax stands at 18 cents a pack—the national average is 84 cents a pack. Mississippi hasn't raised its cigarette taxes since 1985.

On Dec. 21, the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University announced the results from a poll of 601 Mississippians in November that asked, among other questions, if they would support an increase in tobacco taxes. The results surprised even the pollsters: on some key issues, most Mississippians disagree with the governor. Almost two-thirds of respondents—63.5 percent support a $1-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes; 80.4 percent of respondents said they would support the tax if it funded health care programs, while 74.6 percent would support it if it went to Medicaid. A full 78.6 percent of the respondents want to reduce tobacco use among kids. Of the respondents that participated in the poll, 35.6 percent were Democrats, 43.4 percent were Republicans, 5.7 percent were independents and 10.6 percent claimed no political affiliation. Also, 95 percent of the respondents were registered voters.

The poll also found that 72.5 percent of the respondents strongly disagreed with cutting the PLADs from the Medicaid program. The poll showed that 90 percent of the respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate that cut funds for education.

"We are the third lowest in the nation for tobacco tax—that's where we are lacking," said K.C. Grist of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program. "I believe this is expressed best in plain Mississippi English. Folks don't want you messing with the old folks and their children. From this poll, we see how a tax tied to a specific program brings about more approval even across party lines."

The argument for an increased tobacco tax comes down to simple math. The Communities for a Clean Bill of Health argue that even as the Mississippi state budget is expected to have large deficits again, people here need to realize that a huge contributor to that deficit is Medicaid's spending of more than $206 million each year treating the effects of smoking; the current revenue generated from the tobacco tax equals only about $55 million. Therefore, the $206 million this state spends on treating smoking-related illness amounts to an unfair tax burden, costing every Mississippi family almost $500 per year in taxes, whether they choose to smoke or not. The additional $184 million created by a $1 tax increase could help pay off the Medicaid debt created by smokers. When you consider the Federal 3-to-1 matching rate for Medicaid that amount, if spent on Medicaid, comes to more than $550 million.

But the 800-pound wrench in this plan is none other than Gov. Haley Barbour. The governor has continually refused to consider raising a single tax or fee—including the tobacco tax, regardless of whether it helps pay for health care or education, not to mention other state services. It's cut services or nothing, according to him and his followers at the Capitol.

His followers around the state, however, may be seeing it differently.

The People vs. Haley Barbour

"I've been thinking about red states and blue states lately after the election and all," said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute. "An interesting thing about this poll is that 60 percent of the people came from rural areas, so you would think they are more conservative."

"More conservative" might mean anti-gay marriage or "pro-life"—but it may not mean that Mississippians want to underfund education and Medicaid.

"I think this poll paints a clearer picture of Mississippi people's expectations," Wiseman said. "Think about the children and grandchildren of the New Deal Democrats without tons of money to do whatever they want. These people go to pick up a check stub they worked for, and they see this stub as a contract with the government because taxes were taken out. They have expectations for how these taxes should be used. Republicans who identify with moral issues still have some expectations from the government with respect to their needs."

Mississippians' agreement across party lines, as indicated by the Stennis poll, stands in sharp contrast to the growing partisanship at the Capitol, and it may well mean that the fiscal ideologues milling about in Jackson are increasingly out of touch with Mississippians.

"Barbour has a comfort zone," Fleming said. "He's been in Washington most of his life, and that's the way they do things up there—partisanship, that is. He's cut his political teeth on that, and he's done a good job in dividing us here—the Senate and the House."

Ross, however, believes a strong two-party system is good in the Legislature. "This provides for an organized loyal opposition, which is good and means that legislation can be fleshed out instead of coming though without the proper amount of scrutiny. I can just speak for the Senate side, but party lines do not cause division in the Senate. Tort reform (damage caps) passed with 35 votes (during the May special session), and we only have 24 Republicans. Almost 50 percent of Democrats voted for the tort reform issue. It is my opinion that Mississippi politics is in a transition period."

No doubt—Mississippi is clearly losing "Blue Dog" Democrats and gaining Republicans in offices. But where Ross sees a strong two-party system, others see a lopsided coalition of the Executive branch and the Senate. Fleming says that Barbour's strong-arm tactics—and unwillingness to compromise—are forcing the Democrats to really gird their party for battle. "We have gotten to a point where we are organizing a Democratic caucus. Things here no longer imply statesmanship, but instead partisanship. When you are sworn in, you need to get ready to work together in a coalition. Statesmen work though coalitions, while politicians work though partisanship," he said.

Previous Comments

ID
77946
Comment

Might want to do just a wee bit of research on the statement that the Senate is "majority-Republican" because that is factually incorrect. Majority conservative? Yes. Majority supportive of Governor Barbour? You betcha. Of course, with a little more pushing and a little more alienation the liberal Democrats in the state could easily make the Senate a Republican majority, but it isn't so today if the classification is political party.

Author
TC Stein
Date
2005-01-06T20:03:56-06:00
ID
77947
Comment

Good point, TC. I suspect that was added in the editing process, based on faulty assumptions (which always bite you in the ass). I say that because Brett had a longer discussion about how a lot of Senate Democrats are actually Dixiecrats and such, so I don't think he made the mistake. But I'll correct it. Thanks.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-01-06T20:17:08-06:00
ID
77948
Comment

to sort of paraphrase: "Minnesota is known for many things: great authors, beautiful Victorian homes, Sweet Potato Queens well, no, civil rights troubles not so bad but exist, and a ridiculously tight state budget. In one of the richest states in the country, how health care and education and other social programs will be funded is a fundamental question as the Legislature returns for the 2005 session this week, especially with a strong, ideological governor determined to raise nary a tax or fee. But the state will have to look at revenue; both how to raise it and spend it without cutting back on social programs that effectively benefit the constituents." ha. that's Minnesota. same problems . Pawlenty is almost worse than Barbour. and way more likely to become a Senator. yikes. point is, many states are dealing with same issues, actually they have started saying Minnesota is becoming the Mississippi of the North. as I see it, there is lot of wealth here in Ms. that is like a fallow field, well the taxes here are stupid. take them off clothes and food for pete's sake, that is so regressive! income, income . and corporate. and alcohol. cigarette taxes are regr

Author
sunshine
Date
2005-01-07T19:22:29-06:00
ID
77949
Comment

essive. ha. well, yes, it's good to discourage that habit, but why only that one. . easy target. the 'no new taxes' issue is everywhere. but taxes serve a purpose, yes, it's called re-distribution. a good and decent thing . but , like everywhere, let the rich stay that way is the first priority. and, oh, we should just give to charities if we are feeling maybe there's a shortfall . but most of us are willing to take some income tax increase, and we deserve to know how it's spent.

Author
sunshine
Date
2005-01-07T20:42:30-06:00
ID
77950
Comment

ctually they have started saying Minnesota is becoming the Mississippi of the North. I think that would be much better than being the New Jersey of the South. Or the Texas of the Southeast. ;-)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-01-07T20:56:49-06:00
ID
77951
Comment

a little humor is good these days, so, is Miss. the NJ of the South? or the Tx of the southeast? which would be worse.. I do like Austin Tx, but overall, I'd say Miss. has it way over either of those two states. and I'm new here.

Author
sunshine
Date
2005-01-08T13:30:55-06:00
ID
77952
Comment

Suggesting that the matching bond bill monies for Northrup et al and Federal Medicaid matching dollars are "of the same logic" is silly at best. The two are fundamentally different- the bond bill money is offered as a funding commitment to encourage economic growth in our state (it should also be noted that they were NOT matching dollars- the bond monies are minority commitments unlike the fiasco up in Charleston). Aside from the expeneses associated with bond issuance, the money is an investment not an expense. That is, the bond is issued with the expectation of making MORE money for the state. Regardless of whether or not the federal government matches dollars spent in medicaid- the monies are in no way a financial investment but rather simply monies that must be used to recover already spent expenses. If PLADs would have been moved to the federal rolls there would have been no matching required- the Feds would have picked up the entire tab. Also, we should remove partsianship from this- If I recall correctly our notorious fellow Democrat from Plantersville introduced the bill that would have removed the PLADs from Medicaid, so this isn't a Republican issue its an issue we all need to deal with. No one WANTS to cut Medicaid - no taxpayer wants the deserving to go without, but the fact of the matter is the status quo cannot and will not sustain itself. We Democrats can also be realists. Thats all i have time to respond too

Author
bluedog
Date
2005-01-12T11:58:18-06:00
ID
77953
Comment

Bluedog, you're directly quoting words that weren't used in the piece. Regardless, I disagree with your point. Of course the issues are different, but they do share a principle of whether or not to give up matching funds and where the state's priorities are. And I'd suggest that your confidence that "the Feds would have picked up the entire tab" is way ambitious. Uh, they promised to fully fund No Child Left Behind behind as well, and you can see what happened to that. The bigger picture is important here. We have to pay attention to the ideology that is ruling the federal government on health care and Medicare. Shifting the state's obligations on Medicaid to the federal government so that they can ultimately shirk them isn't going to help sick Mississippians much in the long run. As for your comment about Steve Holland, I remember when Salter made the same argument, and it didn't work then, either (as I believe Bobby Harrison pointed out well in the Daily Journal). It's disingenuous, although it might feel good for the governor and his supporters to point fingers back at Holland and other Democrats on this one. However, Holland talked on the floor of the House during the first special session about why he did that, that it was a mistake and that he had changed his mind. And he's been trying very hard to make up for that mistake. Has the governor been doing the same? No. He apparently doesn't make mistakes. But I don't get why, if it's not a mistake, that supporters of the move try to "blame" Democrats for it, too. Is it a mistake or not? Pick one.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-01-12T12:12:01-06:00
ID
77954
Comment

Steve Holland didn't change his mind until he realized there was political capital to be earned. He, like the Governor, is a career politicians and that is the only thing that motivates either of them. My assumption that the feds would pick up the bill is based on fact- the old folks who I know that are on Medicare (the rolls that PLADs should and deserve to be on because the coverage is better) have never had a problem with this federal program. I think its one of the best we've ever createtd- and a Democrat I believe did just that! I'm qouting Brett as saying that the logic behind matching funds for fiscal investment and matching funds for the reimbursement of expenses are the same- and the fact of the matter is they in no way alike. Lets look at the logic in a silly rudementary way- assume you are broke with no money to spend. You need a car. You have two options. One, you parents will buy you the car- the whole tab of $40,000 (a good limosine liberal car). Your other option is to pay $10,000, and your parents will contribute $30,000. So, should you take the second option simply because your folks are matching your 10K? NO. When the expediture is not neccesary- the matching funds become non- issue.

Author
bluedog
Date
2005-01-12T13:16:18-06:00
ID
77955
Comment

Steve Holland didn't change his mind until he realized there was political capital to be earned. He, like the Governor, is a career politicians and that is the only thing that motivates either of them. If you're going to speak for Mr. Holland, you should provide evidence. Otherwise, it sounds like pure speculation, which is your prerogative, of course, but it's not necessarily convincing. Otherwise, I'm happy in this instance to judge both Mr. Barbour and Mr. Holland on their actions -- and Mr. Barbour's are currently bringing up the rear.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2005-01-12T14:20:06-06:00
ID
77956
Comment

Of course its speculation, can you ever prove that someone does something for political capital alone? Rarely. I'm just suspect of someone as educated on the subject as Holland (he is the chairman for crying out loud) "changing their mind" completely on something like this. So you really think all the Democrats that have made this a political issue all suddenly changed their mind at the same time? You don't think someone (uh hum, Mr. Dowdy) helped them realize there could be political capital to be made? I certainly hope that they saw they political capital- because the alternative is a terrible case of groupthink in our Democratic Party Leadership. We could be more effective if we didnt take important issues to our party and use them like political footballs. Leave that to the Republican Party.

Author
bluedog
Date
2005-01-12T14:38:25-06:00

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