AG: Only 'core' Miss. services without court order

JACKSON — As top Mississippi lawmakers continued wrangling Thursday over the unfinished state budget, the Republican governor and Democratic attorney general sharply disagreed about what happens if there’s still no spending plan when the fiscal year begins next week.

Gov. Haley Barbour said he can run government by executive order. Attorney General Jim Hood said that’s true for some agencies, but not all. Hood said Medicaid patients are at risk of losing critical services, including prescription coverage.

“Somebody’s going to die … if he lets this thing keep going in the direction it’s going,” Hood said, criticizing Barbour’s decision to reject a tentative budget deal earlier this week.

Hood said while some “core functions” such as prisons, public schools and mental health facilities could operate under executive order, other services would have to stop unless a judge issues an order to keep them going.

For example, Hood said that without a court order, state troopers could be forced stay off the roads because the Department of Public Safety is not explicitly mentioned in the state constitution.

“If the governor wants to sit up there and let our Public Safety Department shut down, our Crime Lab, which has murder cases that we’re working on, shut down, then that blood’s going to be on his hands,” Hood told reporters Thursday outside the Capitol.

Barbour has said the Highway Patrol could operate under executive order. He said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to ask a judge’s permission to keep state government alive.

“If the attorney general would like to get a court order, then we can have a belt with suspenders,” Barbour said during a news conference.

The governor said he was still not ready to call legislators back to the Capitol for a special session because House and Senate negotiators were working on how to fund Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy.

The fiscal year begins next Wednesday.

Longtime lawmakers say that in their memory, this is the closest Mississippi has come to starting a new budget year without a comprehensive spending plan in place.

Barbour appeared Thursday in Jackson during a brief break from speaking at Republican fundraising events this week in other parts of the country. He was in New Hampshire on Wednesday and was scheduled to speak Thursday night in Iowa. Both states have early contests for the presidential election, and Barbour’s trips there have fueled speculation that he might be considering a White House run in 2012.

While House and Senate negotiators have agreed on most parts of the overall $5 billion budget, Barbour said they still need to figure out how to pay for Medicaid in the new year. He said they also need to cover a $34 million shortfall for the year that ends Tuesday. That’s a relatively small portion of the $900 million the state is spending on Medicaid, but state law prohibits a shortfall from remaining when the fiscal year ends.

Barbour wants lawmakers to set a $90 million annual tax on hospitals to help pay for Medicaid. Hospital executives object say that will hurt their finances, and House leaders fear the cost could be passed on to patients.

Hospitals paid a similar tax for about a dozen years until the federal government blocked it in 2005. Barbour said his proposed revision of the tax would be the hospitals’ “fair share.”

“If we give Medicaid a blank check, then we are exposing the taxpayers to a ticking time bomb of taxes to pay off huge deficits,” Barbour said Thursday.

Hood said Barbour is endangering other state services by insisting on the hospital tax.

“The governor, because of some petty, partisan blood that he’s got with the Hospital Association, has chosen to run our state in the ditch,” Hood said.

Mississippi lawmakers usually finish writing a budget by early April, but they gave themselves more time to work this year because they wanted to see how the federal stimulus package would affect state government. The on-again, off-again regular legislative session ended in early June. Only the governor can call a special session.

Budget negotiators thought they had reached a deal late Sunday, but Barbour objected because it had only a $60 million hospital tax.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said legislative staff members have worked overtime this week to prepare most of the 107 budget bills. He said once negotiators have agreed on Medicaid funding, the staff can draft a bill for that.

Nunnelee predicted that once a special session is called, the full House and Senate would need about two days at the Capitol to approve the budget bills.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press