Lawmakers finish most of $6B budget, not PSC

JACKSON — Bleary-eyed Mississippi lawmakers approved most of the $6 billion budget before the state fiscal year started early Wednesday, addressing Medicaid and public safety while leaving only the state’s utility regulatory agency unfunded.

The Public Service Commission regulates telecommunications, and electrical, natural gas, water and sewer utilities. It also enforces a no-call list designed to help consumers avoid unwanted telephone solicitations.

Commissioner Leonard Bentz said he didn’t know how the agency would continue to function. Gov. Haley Barbour had no immediate comment, but he has said previously he can run the agency by executive order.

Legislators adjourned their three-day special session at midnight Tuesday, shortly after approving spending plans for the Department of Public Safety, Medicaid and several other agencies. About one in every four Mississippians is covered by Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy, and health advocates feared it would lapse out of existence.

“It’s been a long, drawn-out process and people’s nerves have been on edge,” said Mary Troupe, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, said late Tuesday. “It’s not a game. This can be life or death for people.”

Barbour signed a long list of budget bills for most state agencies.

Legislators have to vote every few years to keep state agencies in business — a process that gives officials a chance to review whether programs are operating efficiently. The Medicaid reauthorization bill passed the House on Tuesday night only after a long delay.

Democratic Rep. George Flaggs of Vicksburg was upset about managed-care provisions he thought would limit patients’ medical options, and he exercised his right to have the 82-page bill read aloud.

“This bill is not going to leave here killing people,” Flaggs said to the groans of some colleagues.

It took several House staff members two hours, 20 minutes to read the bill aloud. Only after that did the bill go to the Senate.

The governor controls the agenda of any special session, and he waited until Tuesday to let lawmakers consider Medicaid. He did so only after the Mississippi Hospital Association conceded in a hard-knuckled political fight over the governor’s plan to tax hospitals to help fund Medicaid.

Barbour said the hospital tax starts at $60 million a year and gradually increases to $90 million over the next couple of years, as federal stimulus money disappears.

Hundreds of legislators, lobbyists and spectators gathered in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday to watch as Sam Cameron, executive director of the Mississippi Hospital Association, held a news conference to grudgingly call on the House and Senate to pass the hospital tax, an issue that held up the entire state budget for months.

As Barbour watched from a balcony above, Cameron said he was not going to “respond to the governor’s threats” about the tax.

“I want to warn everyone that there are hospitals who cannot afford to pay the tax provisions in this bill,” Cameron said. “I want to warn everyone that service and staff reductions in local hospitals may occur as a result of this bill.”

Barbour told reporters moments later that under the deal, hospitals will pay their “fair share” to help the state collect federal money for Medicaid. Hospitals had paid a similar tax for about a dozen years until the federal government blocked it in 2005. Barbour has tried since then to persuade lawmakers to pass a revised hospital tax.

“I have said from the beginning, no bill is better than a bad bill, that any Medicaid bill that did not protect the taxpayers was worse than no bill. And if they take it as a threat that I was not going to sign a bad bill for the taxpayers, then that’s his interpretation,” Barbour said, responding to Cameron.

Mississippi lawmakers started their special session on Sunday. The budget is usually finished by early April, but legislators delayed their final decisions this year to give themselves more time to study how the federal stimulus package will affect state government.

Witnesses said Barbour angrily confronted House Democratic leaders in a Capitol hallway Tuesday about a House attempt to extend, for one more year, a cap on salaries for the governor’s staff. Senators had voted to remove the cap.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said Barbour was “very upset.” Brown said the House wants to leave the salary cap on the governor’s staff because of the tight economy. He said other agencies face similar restrictions.

Shortly before midnight, the House removed the salary cap — a step that led to final approval of the governor’s office budget.

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The bills are House Bills 4, 71, 54 and Senate Bill 2041.

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Mississippi Public Service Commission: http://www.psc.state.ms.us/

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press