Birds, Hardball and Hail | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Birds, Hardball and Hail

Early Friday morning, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, walked past some Senate leaders and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, gave them the middle finger and blew a raspberry at them. His bird foreshadowed a long "special" weekend at the state Capitol that ended in a major victory for Gov. Haley Barbour. The saga began Friday when the House voted to go home at 9:30 a.m. although Medicaid anticipated going broke and denying claims by midnight that night. Many lawmakers had declared the debate "useless" because Barbour wouldn't budget on his demands.

Barbour accused the House of "dereliction of duty" in a statement Friday and then called a special session for Saturday. This single action—the first time anyone at the Capitol can remember a governor calling a special session during a regular session—infuriated House leaders, who accused him of trying to be a dictator. Barbour was away in Washington, D.C., when he asked Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck to sign the special-session order and didn't return to the Capitol until mid-afternoon on Saturday after the special session had begun.

After a weekend full of tension, hardball politics and hail, a compromise was reached. The House gave in to Barbour's demand to raid the tobacco trust, as long as it was paid back at some point. However, the idea of paying it back with the tobacco tax is now off the table. A new Medicaid proposal came out of a 9 p.m. House Appropriations Committee meeting Sunday night. Within an hour, HB 4 left the House with a 92-12 vote. Just after 11 p.m. the entire Senate voted 52-0 for the measure.

HB 4 will borrow $240 million from the tobacco trust fund to be repaid from the rainy day fund over seven fiscal years. The state is supposed to reimburse the fund plus 5 percent interest using half of the 2 percent that is set aside annually from the general fund. The bill calls for six payments of $38 million starting in July 2006 plus a final $58 million payment to replenish the fund. HB 4 was a response to SB 2002, which would have issued bonds and used tobacco trust fund money to repay the money over 20 years with payments of $20 million a year from the tobacco settlement through "securitization."

The House bill will cost taxpayers approximately $100 million less than the $400 million from the Senate bill. The shorter-term loan saves money in interest payments. One of the bills Barbour signed on Monday will permit $240 million to be taken from the state health care trust fund; the other bill lets Medicaid appropriate the money where it is needed.

After the House first passed HB 4, many senators, including Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, first said they were completely against the bill and wanted to know why the House had killed their proposal in its Appropriations Committee. However, about 30 minutes later, Burton told the JFP that he was going to vote for the bill even though he didn't see it as the best solution.
So why the change of heart? Holland, one of the HB 4's authors, said, "It is because the governor runs the show over there. I'll tell you what he said. He said, 'Boys and girls, you may vote for the House bill. God bless you, and God bless America.'"

Scott agreed. "It was the governor's position all along—that we raid the tobacco trust and not pay it back with the (tobacco) tax." She didn't vote for the bill. She said, "I would be a hypocrite if I voted for this bill. I promised not to violate the fund."

Barbour glowed in his statement Monday: "As we have said for weeks, there was only one place to turn to address this deficit and save Medicaid… . Many people deserve credit for this impressive turnaround from Friday's failure to Sunday's success."

Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Jackson, blamed Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, for giving "the governor exactly what he wanted—to raid the trust fund." Fleming said about McCoy: "He proved the governor right that this special session was absolutely necessary when we could have done this on Monday. We put Medicaid in the same fix next year as it is in this year. Now, the tobacco tax is officially dead. It won't ever see the light of day."

This was the third special session in a year that Barbour called because the House wouldn't accept his non-negotiable demands. Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, joked as she left Sunday night, "Can we have another special session the next time the governor doesn't get his way?"

Perhaps. Now that the Medicaid crisis is resolved, the legislators must handle the other $650 million deficit that so many are calling "the real train wreck."


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