Battle lines drawn as budget process begins

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Lawmakers started the long, sometimes confusing process of piecing together a state spending plan Wednesday.

The House considered preliminary budgets for 54 state agencies, including the departments of Medicaid, health, education, arts and library commissions.

In the Senate, more than three dozen appropriations bills were passed Wednesday.

Budget writers included reverse repealers — language that would cause the legislation to expire before its effective date in case it needs more work — so most of the bills were taken up as a group and passed.

Others were set aside for debate, setting up a preview of likely partisan fights in the weeks to come. Appropriations bills have to pass their original chambers by next Wednesday.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel

In the case of the $6 billion Medicaid budget — $950 million of that comes from the state’s general fund; the rest is special and federal funds — debate was hung up over questions about funding for a program called the Mississippi Delta Medicaid Population Health Demonstration Project.

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, questioned whether the program is effective.

“In these dire economic times, we should be looking to see how we can make our dollars go the furthest,” Scott said, referring to a roughly $50 million anticipated cut for Medicaid. “We have to be able to explain to our folks when they can’t get some eyeglasses, when they can’t get some dental work because this budget has been cut.”

Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, chairman of the Public Health Committee said a progress report on the project is forthcoming. The bill passed 101-11.

Mims and Scott continued their exchange over the health department’s $334 million budget. The appropriation is about $45 million less than the agency currently receives. Mims said the budget reflects the fact that the role of the health department is changing, including that fewer people use state-run health clinics.

“They’re going to have to take a step back and look and see where their role is,” Mims said.

AP Photo by Rogelio V. Solis

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, center, House Appropriations Committee Chairman John O. Read, R-Gautier, and House Public Health and Human Services Committee chairman Sam Mims , R-McComb, listen to officials from the Mississippi State Department of Mental Health at a hearing last fall. 

Scott pressed Mims on why trauma care is now a line item in the health department budget. During the 2016 session, lawmakers swept money from a special fund that paid for Mississippi’s widely lauded trauma care into the general budget.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, signaled to Mississippi Today recently that adding trauma care to the health department budget would provide more stability.

The health agency bill passed 74-40.

The House also passed the budget for the Department of Education, which does not include the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula. House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said that funding would be considered in a separate bill.

A rewrite of the funding formula is underway. Speaker Philip Gunn said Monday that Gov. Phil Bryant could call a special session to address the funding rewrite.

In the Senate, Clarke reminded lawmakers that the Senate’s 6.1 billion budget recommendation uses only 98 percent of projected available funds. While some criticize the practice and argue that the remaining two percent could fund departments in need, following the 98 percent rule is wise, he said.

“It’s not just stashing cash,” Clarke said. “Part of it is protection in a revenue downfall. It’s just a prudent way to manage your business and manage the state.”

Under the Senate appropriations bills, most boards, agencies and commissions would see cuts for Fiscal Year 2018. The Veterans Affairs Board was spared that fate after Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch initiated a debate on the floor and argued the board should receive more money.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Bill Stone, D-Holly Springs

Senate Bill 2969 would cut about $1 million from the board’s budget. Parker initially urged his peers to vote against the bill, arguing the proposed 19 percent cut would hike up rates for veteran’s care.

In response, Sen. Bill Stone, D- Holly Springs asked to send the bill back into committee, which would potentially kill it if it was not brought back onto the floor and passed before the Feb. 22 appropriations deadline. If that happened, it would force the Legislature to take up the board’s funding in a special session or leave them with no funding at all.

“You’re playing Russian Roulette right now,” Sen. Sean Tindell, R- Gulfport, warned. “I think it’s very, very, very dangerous to kill the bill at this point and I hope you agree with that.”

In response, Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune offered an amendment which would pull $1.5 million from the Education Television Authority and appropriate it to the Veteran’s Affairs Board.

Once the amendment was adopted, Stone withdrew his motion to recommit the bill and Parker said he would support the bill.

It passed, and now moves on to the House for consideration; the Senate will consider House bills as well.