Analysis: Corrections, Medicaid deficits ahead

By Jack Elliott Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi legislators head into the 2013 session knowing they have deficits to address in corrections and Medicaid.

Any others? That’s all rather tentative right now about six weeks out from the Jan. 8 start.

One thing is certain: the money handlers must be convinced there is a clear need.

“I wouldn’t anticipate many deficit appropriations being funded in 2013; however, we’ll take a look at each individual request, determine why any agency is requesting more money, how those requests fit within our priorities and determine if any additional monies are warranted,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee releases its fiscal 2014 plan Dec. 11, and there’s an April 1 deadline for the House and Senate to adopt a budget.

“There’s not going to be a significant number of deficits. We know there’s going to be one in corrections and one in Medicaid. We’ve got the money in reserve accounts to cover it,” said House Appropriations Committee chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville.

Frierson said he would not speculate on what the budget committee might recommend on deficit appropriations although it appears likely that deficit needs for fiscal 2013 will be presented to the Legislature to sort out.

“Me, personally, I am assuming we will handle it when we get into session and can look at some things … look at them real close,” Frierson said. “But I can’t guess what the (budget) committee might suggest.”

In 2012, the Legislature set aside about $13 million in what it calls “additional appropriations.” Not everything in House Bill 1511 was a deficit, such as $2 million for legal matters related to the BP oil spill and $7 million to buy insurance on state property as required by the Stafford Act and $2.6 million to the attorney general for judgments against the state.

The remainder was deficits for the governor’s office, treasury department and the Department of Revenue.

Reeves said there has been an ongoing “mindset in state agencies that the Legislature will always find money to bail them out when they don’t spend taxpayer dollars responsibly.”

“Ideally, I would like directors of agencies with predictable budgets to stop relying on deficit appropriations because they couldn’t manage within the legislative appropriation,” Reeves said.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s budget notes the need for deficit appropriations to the Mississippi Department of Corrections and Medicaid. Bryant has proposed a $29 million deficit for MDOC and $15.5 million for Medicaid.

MDOC’s deficit needs stem from a growing prison population, which has risen to nearly 22,000 people. Mississippi trails only Louisiana in the rate at which it incarcerates people.

“There’s nothing in this deficit that we can do without in terms of public safety,” Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps told members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

In a narrative accompanying his budget, Bryant said Medicaid has “reduced its outstanding need in the current fiscal year.”

Bryant notes, however, that Medicaid’s annual needs are difficult to address because much depends on the number of participants in the program and the extent they use Medicaid-eligible services.

David Dzielak, executive director of the state Division of Medicaid, told lawmakers in September that he needed a $72.2 million deficit appropriation. Under the current program, the federal government provides about 73 cents of each Medicaid dollar spent in Mississippi.

In Mississippi, Medicaid currently provides health care for the disabled, poor pregnant women and children, and certain segments of the elderly population.

Frierson said the deficit for Medicaid will probably be “a whole lot less that we thought” in September but he declined to discuss any figures.

“We’ll have those answers on the 11th,” he said.