By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – A contentious House passed legislation Saturday morning to prevent abortion coverage from being provided in Mississippi in the health insurance exchange that will be established under the new federal law.
The issue brought the House back for a rare Saturday session and will force the House to return again Wednesday morning before the 2010 session finally is concluded.
“The people of the state are opposed to abortion and they are opposed to the Obama health care plan. They wanted that to be known,” said Rep Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who took the legislative action that led to the Saturday session and the passage of the bill.
The health care bill, signed into law by President Barack Obama, gives states the right not to allow abortions to be covered under the health insurance exchanges that are to be set up in each state. The exchanges are designed to allow people and small businesses to pool their resources to purchase private health insurance at a better rate like large corporations are able to do.
The exchanges, though, will not go into effect until 2014 and state legislatures across the nation will have the opportunity to enact numerous guidelines governing how they will operate. That begged the question, for some, of why it was necessary to throw the House into a state of chaos to deal with something in the final days of the 2010 session when it could be handled during the normal legislative process in the upcoming regular sessions.
“The bottom line is that it passed and you can’t spend public funds on abortions in Mississippi,” Gunn said. “You strike when the iron is hot.”
The issue became chaotic when House Public Health Chair Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, refused to take the issue up in his committee. Holland said it was not necessary since state law already bans public funds from being spent on abortions in Mississippi.
“We worked to put that law on the books in 2002,” Holland said. “That law is there for a reason. There was no need to repeat this except politics.”
Holland contended the legislation was designed to help the congressional campaign of state Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who is the primary author of the bill and running for Congress in the 1st District. Nunnelee said he has a long record of being anti-abortion so his actions were not out of the ordinary.
At any rate, Holland was not at the Capitol on Saturday. He was home taking care of the funeral of a first cousin.
Public Health Vice Chair Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, also was not present. Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, the secretary of the Committee, presided over the meeting of Public Health where the bill was brought up for a vote and passed on to the full chamber.
Asked if the secretary could preside over a committee meeting, House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, who voted for the bill, said “Yes he can if I tell him to.”
Several Democrats viewed the bill as a slap at the Obama presidency even though the new law gives states the right to do what Mississippi did.
“This is all about politics.” said Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni. “Somebody wants to play to the lowest common denominator to get people all riled up…This is stupid.”
The House was forced to come back Saturday because on Friday Gunn held the budget bills for Medicaid and Human Services on a motion to reconsider in order to buy time to fore a vote on the abortion bill. Those motions could not be tabled on the same day they were entered. It became obvious overnight that a majority of the House would not vote to end the session until the abortion bill was taken up. McCoy made the decision to have Barker handle the bill in Holland’s absence.
“The rules provide for that,” Holland conceded. “…But these political shenanigans cost $70,000,” which, he said, could have been used to draw down $400,000 in matching Medicaid funds at a time when the governor was cutting the health care program because of a shortfall.
“Bah humbug,” Holland said of the process.
The members who attended Saturday’s session received $116 for expenses. When members return on Wednesday to dispose of a motion to reconsider on the abortion bill, they will receive another $116 each, plus gas mileage.
The House has 122 members.