Legislators leave Medicaid short of money

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON The Mississippi Legislature passed its final budget bills Monday evening after the House finally yielded on its efforts to insert language in the Medicaid bill to make taking care of the projected $90 million deficit in the agency a priority.

Since this is an election year and it is not certain who will be governing during the 2004 session, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said he believed it was essential to place the commitment to Medicaid in state law. Medicaid provides health care services for the elderly, disabled and poor children. Legislators admitted they are not giving the agency enough money to provide those costly services, such ad nursing home care and prescription drugs.

Despite acknowledging the deficit, the Senate leaders rejected the language to make funding the shortfall a priority. The House negotiators right before the 6 p.m. deadline conceded and agreed to the budget bill for Medicaid without the language in the legislation.

''I don't know who will be here in 2004, but you can rest assured they will fund the Medicaid program,'' Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, said on the Senate floor. “They will not let the 700,000 Medicaid recipients be without medical care. You know that. I know that.''

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, responded, “No sir. I don't know that.''

Still, the bill with the $90 million deficit was passed and sent to Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

Also, late Monday, Musgrove announced that he planned to veto two bills that commit practically all of the state reserve funds to the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

''In the interest of sound fiscal management, I am vetoing both bills,'' Musgrove said. “It is my hope to work with the Legislature to reach a compromise on the budget without jeopardizing the fiscal integrity, as well as the future, of Mississippi.''

The bills Musgrove said he plans to veto spend the state's rainy day fund and so-called 2 percent hold back. The state has a rainy day fund that can be used to address budget shortfalls. By law the state also appropriates only 98 percent of its general fund tax collections. The remaining 2 percent is set aside to be used if tax collections do not come in as expected.

In the current general fund budget, the entire 100 percent of anticipated tax revenue is appropriated and the entire rainy day fund is in essence spent.

The Legislature is being forced to use the reserve funds because of a slowdown in tax collections caused by the national recession. Legislators said the funds had to be used to fully fund education and to fund vital services.

Musgrove had proposed using part of the nearly $1 billion in deposits at various state agencies to help fund the general fund while protecting either the rainy day fund or the 2 percent hold back. On Sunday, Musgrove chief of staff Bill Renick said it would place the state in financial peril to spend both the 2 percent and the rainy day fund. In the event there is another slowdown in tax collections, the governor would have no choice but to cut services. If there is money in the rainy day fund, the governor has the authority to spend up to $50 million out of the rainy day fund to keep from having to make cuts.

Republican Lt.. Gov. Amy Tuck, who presides over the Senate, said she is surprised that Musgrove is vetoing the legislation.

''Obviously, these are tough times and we had to make some tough decision,'' she said. “There are no easy answers.''

The announcement of the pending veto comes at a time when the Legislature is trying to complete the 2003 session. Only a handful of bills remain to be acted upon.

On Monday, the Legislature passed an agreement to establish a state-sponsored risk pool to provide medical malpractice insurance for health care providers.

Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said the risk pool is designed to be an option for health care providers who cannot find coverage anywhere else.