BOBBY HARRISON: Mississippi legislators engage in unnecessary abortion fight

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The legislative process is set up to be confrontational. It also can be messy and sloppy.
But the ongoing fight in the Mississippi House over a bill that would prevent abortion coverage from being offered in the new federal health insurance exchange is a fight that did not have to be.
The fight came last week when the Legislature resumed the 2010 regular session with the primary purpose of developing a budget.
A few days before the session resumed last week, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, decided to introduced legislation to ensure that the insurance offered through the newly created health care exchange did not provide abortion coverage to Mississippians.
The legislation passed the state Senate with limited fanfare. But the same piece of legislation caused all sorts of drama in the House after the leadership was unable to adjourn the 2010 session because Public Health Chair Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, refused to allow the bill out of his committee.
The result is that Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, eventually went around Holland to pass the legislation after Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, used a parliamentary maneuver to force the House to come in an extra day to pass the bill before the leadership could muster the votes to adjourn. And now Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, is forcing the House to come back Wednesday to table his motion to reconsider the anti-abortion bill before adjourning.
Theoretically another legislative showdown could be brewing Wednesday if McCoy follows his normal practice of recognizing only chairs to table motions to reconsider. If that is the case and Holland chooses not to table the motion, it will lead to more drama.
I suspect McCoy will find a way to get around that drama.
All of this political gamesmanship will ultimately cost the state about $40,000.
The truth is, none of the drama was needed, and both sides are responsible for creating it.
Nunnelee, Bryant and others said the legislation would ensure public funds in Mississippi were not spent on abortion.
Holland said the legislation was not needed because existing law prevents public funds in the state from being spent on abortion. He said he knows this because he helped shepherd to passage earlier this decade the bill that prevents the expenditure of public funds on abortion in Mississippi.
The health insurance exchanges, at the center of the controversy, are being set up to allow people and small businesses to join forces to get a cheaper rate for health insurance. Under the federal law, people who fall below a certain income level will receive subsides to help them purchase insurance in the exchanges.
The new law already states that public funds cannot be used to purchase health insurance with abortion coverage. But a person receiving the subsidy could use her own funds to purchase the portion of the plan providing the abortion coverage. The law says the private and public funds must be segregated.
The bill supported by Nunnelee and Bryant will prevent the purchase through the exchange of any health care coverage that provides abortion coverage with public or private funds.
But the exchanges will not take effect until 2014. Mississippi can deal with this issue through the normal legislative process in 2011, 2012 or 2013.
The delay would not have resulted in one abortion being performed.
On the other side, though, Holland and others who opposed the bill being taken up created unnecessary controversy. Ultimately the legislation was going to pass – if not during the final days of the 2010 session – at a later date.
The wiser political move would have been to go ahead and deal with the issue since there was strong sentiment in the Legislature – and probably in the public – to do just that.
Mississippi is an anti-abortion state. The Legislature takes every step possible to make it more difficult to obtain an abortion in the state. A few years ago Holland passed out of his committee a bill that would outlaw all abortions in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court ever reversed itself on abortion.
By trying to block the passage of the bill last week, Holland was only delaying the inevitable.
Much of the opposition to the proposal was not because of abortion, but because it was perceived as an effort to take a slap at the far-reaching new federal health care law and at President Barack Obama.
And many who supported the antiabortion legislation portrayed it that way. But the truth is, as stated earlier, the legislation supported and signed by Obama gives the states the right to do what Mississippi is doing.
So how can it be a slap at anyone to do what the new law says Mississippi and other states can do?
The bottom line: Both sides dug in on a issue where there was no reason to be digging at all.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at or (601) 353-3119.

Click video to hear audio