Wednesday, March 12, 2008
The Mississippi House of Representatives deeply involved itself in appropriation bills last week. The House is up against a March 12 deadline to weigh in on "money bills" originating in the House, but it also faces a March 18 end-date for House committees to ruminate over general bills coming in from the Senate.
The House passed the $1.1 billion budget for the State Department of Transportation, and approved a bill to fund the $4 billion Medicaid program. House Bill 1601 essentially funds Medicaid, with the state putting up $1 billion in matching funds to draw $3 billion in federal dollars. The bill comes with a little extra language, however, thanks to Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, of Plantersville. Holland tossed in a last-ditch effort to increase the state's 18-cent excise tax on a pack of cigarettes to $1. A bill to increase the state's cigarette tax to $1 already died in a Senate committee last month.
Gov. Haley Barbour is a former tobacco lobbyist who has opposed a cigarette tax increase. Barbour has vetoed the tax in past years, but can rely on surrogates in the Senate to kill the bills before they reach his desk during this session.
Holland said he has not communicated with many of his counterparts over in the Senate for more than a year and does not know how the cigarette tax language will fare in the Senate.
"Taking out the tax will probably hurt them in the long run," Holland said. "It messed up Sen. Tommy Robertson pretty bad."
Robertson lost his seat during last year's primary to an opponent who supported the cigarette tax increase.
Holland also advocated removing the bill's "face-to-face" requirement for Medicaid recertification.
"Face-to-face was one of those noble ideas that had some value going in, but in reality, after three years it saved very little money and did more harassment than anything," Holland said. "I think the time could be better spent managing Medicaid eligibles, and by doing some quality controls and education of staff and recipients."
Holland said the House would probably "hang pretty tight" on removing the requirement.
The House also passed HB 1641, which authorizes more than $43 million in bonds for the state's institutions of higher learning and $25 million for community colleges.
College advocates have been keeping the heat on representatives, saying they desperately need capital improvements and have no desire to raise tuition fees to do it.
The House also passed HB 1624, which gives a boost to the state's decaying bridges and roads. The bill specifically dedicates $100 million to bridge replacement, $75 million to highway projects and another $25 million for initial projects supporting the Toyota plant near Tupelo.
The House Public Utilities Committee will consider a Senate bill this week allowing the Public Service Commission to decide whether energy companies can raise customers' rates to fund the construction of a nuclear reactor at Grand Gulf and a new coal plant. Current state law only allows companies to charge customers after the plants are up and running.
Opponents of Senate Bill 2793 claim the bill offers no fail-safe language reimbursing customers for their increased costs if, for some reason, the plants are never completed.
Mississippi Sierra Club Regional Representative Louie Miller, who opposes the bill, said he was unsure how House Public Utilities Chairman Tyrone D-Starkville, felt about the bill.
"I can't read the guy. I can't tell how he's taking the bill, and he's not talking to me," Miller said. "But, from what I see at the Capitol, the energy lobbyists are walking around seemingly as clueless as I am on the man's intentions. Maybe that's a good thing and maybe he can't be bought."