House passes bill to prevent Medicaid cuts

By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The Mississippi House passed legislation Friday to prevent Gov. Haley Barbour from enacting cuts in the Medicaid program to deal with a $90 million deficit in state funding.

The legislation, which would delay any cuts until Feb. 1, was approved by a narrow 68-44 margin – exactly the three-fifths majority needed for passage.

Lt. Gov. Phil Byrant sent the House-passed bill to the Senate Public Health and Appropriations committees.

Both chambers then adjourned the current special session until Wednesday – one day after Barbour has said he will begin the process of making cuts in the federal-state Medicaid program, which provides health care to about 600,000 elderly, disabled and poor pregnant women and children.

McCoy cites options
“This gives time for various options to continue to be considered,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. “It also shows the House’s desire to protect health care for more than 600,000 Mississippians who depend on Medicaid.”

Barbour lashed out at the House, saying members “violated their oath of office” by passing the legislation that would prevent him from making cuts.

“Every legislator takes an oath upon entering office, and swears before God to execute all the requirements of the Constitution of the state of Mississippi,” Barbour said in a prepared statement. “That Constitution requires a balanced budget, but 68 House members voted to violate the Constitution by running a huge deficit…”

In past years, the Legislature has passed budgets that knowingly leave some agencies underfunded but has dealt with the deficit during the next regular session, in the middle of the fiscal year. Barbour had signed those budget bills into law.

“During his (Barbour’s) administration we have had deficits in a variety of areas that we dealt with like we will with this Medicaid deficit,” said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley.

Reynolds added that the state Constitution does not include a balanced budget requirement, but that state law does.

The legislation passed Friday by the House would change that law. It takes approval by the electorate to change the Constitution.

Pete Smith, a spokesman for the governor, pointed to the Constitution's Section 63, which reads “No appropriation bill shall be passed by the Legislature which does not fix definitely the maximum sum thereby authorized to be drawn from the treasury.”

The Medicaid appropriations bill, like all budget bills, states a specific amount to be taken from the treasury. Before additional money can be taken, the Legislature would have to pass another appropriations bill.

Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, voted against the House proposal.

“It's procrastination,” Frierson said, adding he did not want to delay dealing with the deficit.

The bill would delay cuts until Feb. 1, giving the 2009 Legislature time to deal with the issue.
Barbour has said that unless the House passes a hospital patient tax – as the Senate has done – he will begin making cuts in Medicaid. The House leadership has balked at the hospital tax, favoring instead a cigarette tax increase or a combination of the two.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

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