CLARKSDALE – A community update here Thursday on legislative and congressional action highlighted issues with funding for health care, education and federal safety net programs.
“I want to have a conversation with you about our state and the well-being of our state,” said State Representative Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale, who hosted the event at Coahoma Community College.
Panelists — including legislators, state officials, public policy advocates and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson — highlighted areas they said should be of concern to residents in this region of the state. Among highlights:
Health care delivery
Over the last few years, local health departments had to cut back on services they provide, said Diane Hargrove, District 1 & 3 Administrator of the Department of Health.
Budget cuts that began July 1 have forced local health departments to cut back on their days of operation, said Hargrove. In Clarksdale, for example, the health department is now open just four days a week.
In this recent legislative session, the health department again took a significant cut, she said.
“Fiscal year ’17, we were allocated a little over $36 million dollars. Fiscal year ’18, we were allocated $27.8 million dollars, which is an eight million dollar cut,” she said, or about a 25 percent cut in general funds coming to the agency.
Hargrove noted that of the $27.8 million allocated “$9 million dollars were passed through” to other entities and cannot be used for health department operations.
Hargrove said they have yet to receive their budget for the next fiscal year, noting that outside sources affect what the department of health can do.
For example, the health department receives general funds and federal grants. With some of those federal grants, they have to match with state dollars, she said. If state dollars are less, then some of those federal grants are less, according to Hargrove. Hargrove said they also receive money through third party earnings like Medicaid which affects the health department budget.
“It’s because of advocacy efforts that our agency didn’t get cut more than it did,” said Hargrove.
State Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond, noted that the bill to fund Medicaid this legislative session underfunded that department by $90 billion.
Medicaid being underfunded seems to be a cycle almost every year, he said. Hospitals and providers in the state wouldn’t be able to survive without Medicaid, said Dortch.
He also pointed to recent attempts by Republicans in Congress to roll back health care coverage known as Obamacare.
“The act (American Health Care Act) that Congress was putting forward to replace the Affordable Care Act was essentially a huge tax cut for billionaires paid for by cuts through Medicaid,” said Dortch. He said that bill would’ve cut Medicaid by more than $800 billion dollars over 10 years, which is a 25 percent cut.
Dortch said for a state like Mississippi which relies so much on Medicaid for its health care, the proposed cut would have represented $2 billion dollars (about 25 percent) taken out of the health care budget over the next decade.
Dortch also took the opportunity to complain about what he called the “probably the worst bill” the Legislature have passed this year — the HOPE Act (HB-1090).
“This act allows a third party contract to an out-of-state corporation to run checks on people who apply for Medicaid,” said Dortch. “We’re going to be paying 10 to 15 million dollars to an out-of-state corporation to try to push people off Medicaid. That’s a waste of money.”
One bright spot cited by the state legislators was the Rivers McGraw Act (HB-1089) which offers alternate sentencing for anyone with a diagnosed mental illness who commits certain drug or alcohol-related crimes. Rather than jail time, sentences could include screenings, counseling and rehabilitative care.
“That’s probably the first piece of legislation that has come out of that committee that has been worthwhile … that has had any value,” said state Rep. John W. Hines, Sr., D-Greenville. He added that Coahoma County being a part of the pilot program would be good for the community.
“This is a good opportunity for us to save some lives and help some people get their lives back together,” said Hines.
But with good news, there is bad news, he said, telling the audience that the Department of Mental Health was cut by six percent and funding for institutions and community health centers was changed.
“They decided to lump all the money into one pot, so now they have to compete for funding,” said Hines.
The state’s economy
“I was asked to kind of give you a quick overview of where Mississippi’s economy is,” said Dr. Darrin Webb, State of Mississippi Economist. “We are growing at a pace that is better than what we have seen in the past, but not as good as some other states.”
Webb said 2016 was the first year the state has seen back to back growth since the recession in 2008.
“In fact, we have seen a pretty good improvement in our income growth with 3.2 percent in 2016,” said Webb. “That’s the best we’ve seen since 2012.”
Employment growth also exceeded one percent growth in the past two years, he added, noting it’s the strongest in the state since 1999.
“The economy is growing, not growing super strong,” said Webb. “But it’s the best we’ve seen in the past few years.”
Dr. Corey Wiggins, Director of Hope Policy Institute, raised concerns about state budgeting. “Right now in Mississippi we have a serious problem with our state budget,” Wiggins said.
He said the Legislature supporting tax breaks for wealthy people in big corporations results in less resources, money, and revenue that comes into the state’s budget.
“We’re having problems funding health, we’re having problems trying to fund mental health, we’re having problems trying to find public education,” he said. “Yes, you have a problem trying to fund those things if you’re not bringing in the revenue to support those priorities.”
There has been a series of tax cuts for the past several years that has impacted the state budget, said Wiggins. By reducing revenue, it affects provided services and jobs in the state, he said.
One of the most controversial topics this legislative session was public education and creating a rewrite of Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the state’s current funding formula, which has only been fully funded twice in 20 years.
“We started requesting public hearings because if you’re talking about changing a formula that’s going to impact public education for centuries to come, then certainly the people that’s on the ground working on public education issues… needs to be a part of that process,” said Marilyn Young, Education Director of Southern Echo, Inc. “We’re hoping that EdBuild (recommendations for changes) will not fly, but we don’t know for sure.”
On a statewide level, MAEP is underfunded by $213.8 million dollars, according to a flyer from the Parent’s Campaign distributed at the panel.
The flyer gave these funding breakdowns for local counties:
• Clarksdale Municipal School District: FY17 is $1,254,975 dollars below the state’s required amount. The district has lost $14,844,958 dollars since the last time MAEP was fully funded.
• Coahoma County School District: FY17 is $659,708 dollars below the state’s required amount. The district has lost a total of $6,807,707 since the last time the MAEP was fully funded.
• North Bolivar Consolidated School District: FY17 is $562,190 below the state’s required amount. The district has lost a total of $6,328,103 dollars since the last time the MAEP was fully funded.
“In Mississippi in 2017, public education is under attack,” said Pamela Shaw, President of P3 Strategies, LLC, which seeks to improve civil society and opportunities for under served children.
The federal update
“Donald Trump is president and what he’s doing is deconstructing government as we know it,” said Congressman Bennie G. Thompson. “That means that all the programs that we hold near and dear to us in this country, if he has his way, they will not exist.”
Thompson gave examples: Title I, free and reduced lunch, and Meals on Wheels. He said these programs have provided safety nets for parents. He went on to say some other programs on the chopping block are WIC, SNAP, and conservation reserve programs.
“So really a person who said he is going to make America great again is doing just the opposite,” Thompson said of Trump.
Thompson said local residents should look at the the notion that the tax cuts for the wealthy will be at the expense of working, low-income people in the country.
“It’s kind of like Robin Hood in reverse, you’re gonna take from the poor and give to the rich,” he said.
From a civic engagement standpoint, Thompson advised the audience to write to their senators and tell them they don’t want cuts to go into effect.
He said Mississippi will be adversely impacted more than any other state because if it were not for federal funds, the state would be in a far worse state.
“All those programs that provide education for our children, we’re gonna have to fight for them,” said Thompson.