COLUMN: Sen. Bryan helped pluck Medicaid from the fire

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – About three weeks ago, when House and Senate negotiators were trying to put together a state budget, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant instructed members of his staff to get “Hob down here to work on Medicaid.”
Hob Bryan, D-Amory, is the Senate Public Health Committee chair. Bryant and Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said that whatever Bryan negotiated with his House counterparts on the issue of increasing the taxes on hospitals would be part of the budget deal.
House negotiators, after being assured that Bryan was indeed representing the Senate leadership, went to work with him. Less than a week after Bryan arrived on the scene, a deal was struck on Medicaid.
That opened the door for an overall budget agreement to be reached the next day.
But about 48 hours after Bryan and House negotiators Dirk Dedeaux, D-Gulfport, and Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, reached their deal, Gov. Haley Barbour voiced his opposition.
He said he objected to language in the agreement preventing him from making cuts to hospitals’ Medicaid reimbursements to offset any Medicaid deficit.
Bryan pointed out that the hospitals were given protection because their taxes were being increased at least $60 million and perhaps $90 million annually. Barbour agreed to the same language last year when he was trying to get the $90 million tax through the Legislature, Bryan added.
At any rate, right after Barbour voiced his opposition to the Medicaid deal Bryan reached with the House negotiators, the lieutenant governor opined, saying he also opposed giving the hospitals protections from cuts.
Never mind that Bryant assigned Bryan to negotiate on behalf of the Senate. Bryant said he was opposed to providing the hospitals the protections from cuts all along and had made that clear throughout the process.
Apparently, it was not clear to Bryan or to the House members who thought they were negotiating in good faith with Bryan.
But Bryan did not take it as a slap in a face that Bryant did not hold steady in his support after the governor objected.
Instead, Bryan recognized the urgency of the situation – to reach an agreement that both House negotiators and Barbour could live with so that the governor would call a special session to fund Medicaid and other aspects of state government before the new fiscal year began.
The Republican Barbour and the Democratic House leadership had divergent views on how Medicaid should be funded. Ironically, on this particular issue, Bryan, normally a loyal Democrat, was closer to Barbour’s position.
But on the issue of taxing hospitals, Bryan knew based on past votes that he and the governor were in the minority in the Legislature among both parties.
Surprisingly, no member of the Legislature was probably better equipped than Hob Bryan to forge an agreement between the two sides.
At times, there is probably no more combustible member among the 174 legislators than Bryan. At times, he engenders an occasional desire to strangle him or at least beat him senseless. At times, he doesn’t, as the old saying goes, “suffer fools lightly.”
For someone with that personality trait, choosing a career in politics might be akin to a vegetarian selling steaks.
But Bryan also has the unique ability to take divergent views and help craft solutions that are innovative while at the same time practical.
The Medicaid agreement reached late Monday night and passed by the Legislature late Tuesday night – hours before the clock struck midnight and a new fiscal year began – had input from a lot of people.
In the end, the House – and indeed the entire Legislature based on past votes – probably gave up more than the governor.
But the governor got far from everything he wanted. For instance, Barbour said he wanted the hospital tax increase because it would be a permanent solution to Medicaid’s financial woes. His permanent solution expires less than a year after he leaves office.
In the end, both sides got some and gave up some.
And Hob Bryan’s involvement in the negotiations went a long way to getting the agreement done.
Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at bharrison@djournal.com or at (601) 353-3119.