SID SALTER: Room for compromise abounds on budget, but some put politics first

The current legislative budget standoff has become like the plot of a soap opera that stays on television for three decades – you keep watching the same people do and say the same things over and over again.
In the House, there’s the same penchant to throw non-recurring revenue at recurring state expenses that’s been evident for the last decade. The late Gov. Kirk Fordice was conducting the same arguments with lawmakers that have consumed current Gov. Haley Barbour’s relationship with the House during his two terms.
Rather than exact the $90 million hospital assessment backed by Barbour to help fund Medicaid, House leaders consistently called that method a “tax on the sick” until economic times got hard this year. Then, the House leadership retreated to a second line – it’s okay to tax the sick at around $60 million, so long as the state kicks back some money to the state’s hospitals that are angry about having to pay the assessments.
That despite the fact that some of the hospitals squealing the loudest about “hospital taxes” are the ones that perform little or no Medicaid care and who are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of cash in retained earnings or squirreled away in hospital-controlled foundations.
And, that despite the fact that some of the lawmakers who defend the hospitals most ardently continue to authorize a Medicaid program that costs far more than they vote to fund with recurring state revenues.
But with the state temporarily fat with money in the state’s “rainy day” Working Cash Stabilization Fund, funds from the Hurricane Katrina relief appropriations and the good old Health Care Trust Fund (the money from the state’s tobacco lawsuit that lawmakers pledged would remain “inviolate” and then proceeded to violate repeatedly, lawmakers once again have decided to feed their one-time money addiction.
That, of course, after raising the state’s cigarette excise taxes and sticking the proceeds from that into the state’s General Fund.
But let’s not heap all the blame for the current budget impasse on the backs of the House. The state Senate has contributed mightily to the problem. With the House offering some compromises, Senate conferees led by state Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, dug in their heels and declined any substantial compromise. It appears that Sen. Nunnelee’s flirtation with a future congressional bid is impacting his ability to negotiate a state budget.
With the House offering $60 million in hospital taxes, the Senate wanted to cut the Medicaid program at a time when demand for Medicaid was increasing because of the national economy.
Medicaid is only one component of the state’s $5 billion-plus budget. While public education at all levels and Medicaid make up the lion’s share of the state budget, there are other functions. That’s why a refusal to compromise on Medicaid funding is so destructive.
John Q. Public doesn’t care who’s running for state or federal office next time around. But he does expect the 2009 Mississippi Legislature to adopt a workable state budget that funds the essential functions of state government.
As I’ve written before, it’s foolish to the point of governmental malpractice to consistently bet on non-recurring funds to pay for recurring expenses year after year.
Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com. Visit his blog at clarionledger.com. His talk radio show, On Deadline with Sid Salter, is broadcast on the SuperTalk Mississippi network.

NEMS Daily Journal