The Legislature only has until Jan. 31 to decide whether it will reinstate the Medicaid benefits taken from 50,000 people characterized as Poverty Level, Aged and Disabled (PLADs) last session. This deadline is a strict one, set under a court order issued Oct. 1 by U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate. However, making that choice is easier said than done.
On Thursday, Jan. 6, both the House Medicaid and Ways and Means committees cleared the way for a bill that would increase tobacco taxes $1 a pack to fund the PLADs category and other Medicaid programs. However, when House Bill 410 made its way to the floor of the House on Friday at 9 a.m., it took two-and-a-half hours of debate to get to a 59-54 vote for the bill. But passing a revenue bill in the House requires a three-fifths majority, which would have required 72 "yea" votes in this case.
The Medicaid deficit currently sits at $268 million. Restoring the benefits for those about to be cut off accounts for $90 million of that $268 million. The only way to go from here is to propose more cuts in the Medicaid program and find additional sources of revenue. The legislators will have to find a way to come up with another $700 million for the gap in the budget this year.
This bill was just one of the many on Medicaid sure to come up to bat this session. On this topic, two polar opposite views dominate the Capitol. One position is to make lots of cuts to the Medicaid program. The other is to make minimal cuts and find new sources of revenue for it. Either way, House Medicaid Committee Chairman Leonard Morris, D-Batesville, promised the entire House: "I can assure you, the Medicaid Committee will bring you plenty more cuts to vote on. This bill is just a start and a way to get money to fund the PLADs category."
Meanwhile, House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, served a hot plate of reality on the floor Friday morning. After handing out a list of budget deficits and considerations, he revealed just how hard it is going to be to come up with nearly a billion dollars this session. He stated: "Even if we lay off every state employee for the year and ask them to go home, then we still wouldn't have a balanced budget for this year. That is including all of us, the Senate, the lieutenant governor and all the state agencies."
Stringer painted a dismal picture for the outlook of Medicaid. He said, "I'm ready to cut, and we are going to have to cut to the bone. We might even have to saw off the bone, folks."
House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, preached his support for the bill, too: "Some of you think there are rabbits to pull out of a hat. Well, there are no rabbits. The rabbits are dead. The money is gone. The only money left is in the tobacco trust. This is our option at hand now. There are no fairy-tale Santa Clauses for Medicaid."
Rep. John Reeves, R-Jackson, said this bill had no hope. While he does not recommend cutting the PLADs category, he believes something more comprehensive with cuts and no tax increases should be brought to the table. However, legislators such as Holland and Morris believe Reeves is dreaming or that he wants to make too many cuts.
Still, Reeves made his predictions: "I know Governor Barbour will veto this bill in its present state. Otherwise, two-thirds of the Legislature will not vote against Barbour, and you know it." This rings true, as it is common knowledge that the Senate and Barbour seem to work hand-in-hand on every issue.
The defeated bill would have increased cigarette taxes from the current 18 cents a pack to $1.18. Tax rates on other tobacco products such as snuff and cigars would have risen 10 percent. There have been no proposals, yet, to restore Medicaid benefits in the Senate.
House leaders Morris, Holland, Stringer, and others such as Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, hoped to have the new tax take effect Feb. 1. The tax would have spawned about $83 million before the current fiscal year ends on June 30. In fact, Brown supported the cigarette tax so much that he introduced a few amendments that actually passed in order to make the bill more effective and friendly across party lines.
The war over Medicaid is not over, though. The tunnel to restoring the PLADs category will continue to get just a little bit deeper and darker as the Jan. 31 deadline nears. And it is likely that the tobacco tax will resurface in another form. Many legislators see few other options—and almost two-thirds of Mississippians support the tax, according to a recent Stennis Institute poll.
"We are so tapped out. We've tried everything. We even took $20 million out of the tax refund money from the state that was supposed to go to Mississippians who paid too much money in taxes last year," Brown said.
Saying that his plan focuses on "fundamentals, not funding," Gov. Haley Barbour presented his "Upgrade" Education Reform Act of 2005 at the Capitol last Wednesday, Jan. 5. He was joined by plan supporters Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg. Barbour said that more than 1,000 people have collaborated on this plan—including teachers, superintendents, school board members and "very respected experts on the development of the human brain." He proclaimed, "This is not my plan; it is theirs—the experts."
Tuck, a former teacher, said that enough improvements can be made with little expense: "I've been in the classroom. That's where the heart beat is. That's where the greatest impact is made. We have limited resources, but these are things that can be done that aren't costly. Some are even at no cost at all." One of the primary parts of the package is called "Put Teaching First." This would raise the teacher's pay by 8 percent. Last year, the Legislature past the cost of the teacher pay raise onto local school districts.
The plan would also include "giving local school districts the express legal authority and encouragement to privatize local services and non-education functions to save funds." That means the funding will need to be cut for "non-instructional" expenses. Chaney said: "Six districts in the state have already privatized. These non-educational services include janitorial services, transportation, landscaping, food services and maintenance and repair."
The governor also wants to "expand Mississippi's charter school law." According to Sen. Gloria Williamson, D-Philadelphia: "Barbour is going to push for charter schools just like he did last year. He is going to try and push anything that will promote charter schools because they are just like private schools. In my opinion, charter schools are tax-payer-supported schools for the rich."
One other goal for the governor's plan is to re-employ retired teachers. "This is an incentive for those teachers with experience to give back and provide a type of mentorship," Tuck said.
Dr. Henry L. Johnson, state Superintendent of Education, says that the Mississippi Department of Education supports the "broad concepts" of the governor's plan. However, the priority is full education funding, which is not included. "We encourage Governor Barbour to further support our schools, students and administrators by including full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in his budget," he said in a statement. "The number one priority of the State Board of Education is funding the teacher pay raise and early and full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program."
While I am no fan of high taxes, I think we should definately tax the hell out of smokes and snuff. Republicans are quick to say that its a short term solution to our budget problems, but I disagree compeletely.
While the immediate tax revenue generated will certainly, over the long run, have a diminishing effect (the higher taxes will cause some cessation, thus reducing the tax revenue), the long term benefits are truly a long term fiscal investment.
This tax should be passed soley to discourage a behavior that has a negative impact on the environment, kids, and everyone that comes in contact with the crap. One reason we can't afford Medicaid is because poor uneducated Mississippians smoke/dip all their lives, get related cancers, then rely on the state medicaid program to foot the bill for thousands of dollars for the treatment of related disease (which is usually in vain unfortunately). As Democrats, we are fundamentally commited to ensuring that the best healthcare is availble to everyone- and one way to ensure we can do that in the long run is to cut out un needed pressure on our government programs that provide such vital services.
I hear there is a bill thatís been filed to cut down the MS school districts to one per county. I think this is a great idea! This will eliminate the need for superintendents, assistant superintendents, and principals at each of these tiny school districts. For example, I learned this morning that in Benoit, MS, they have all three of the aforementioned positions in their little school district. Superintend made in the 80s, assistant superintendent made in the 60's, principal made in the 50's. How many students make up the entire district? 287! What a waste! Sounds like there is No Superintendent Left Behind in Mississippi!