Call A Special Session, Barbour

The budget wars between the two chambers of the state Legislature are nothing new. Last year, lawmakers came to the Capitol to find a $90 million shortfall in the Medicaid program, and they likely will have to address it again in the 2010 session. This year's battle over the budget, however, has proven to be more difficult for one reason: Gov. Haley Barbour.

Last Sunday, House and Senate negotiators announced a compromise on a $5 billion budget for fiscal year 2010 after struggling to balance it for nearly two months. The agreement hinged on a $60 million hospital assessment, which showed a great compromise between the two legislative bodies. The Senate, which had initially favored a $90 million assessment to cover the entire Medicaid shortfall, agreed to a more modest $60 million, while House negotiators upped their amount from $45 million. It seemed likely that the state would have a finalized budget before its July 1 deadline and would be able to continue operating its governmental departments and agencies.

But alas, Gov. Barbour announced the following day that the agreement had "a huge, fundamental flaw" and that he had no intention of calling a special session to vote on the budget. That "flaw" happened to be that the agreement prevented Barbour from cutting Medicaid funding without Legislative approval. Apparently, Barbour likes his power exclusive and uninhibited.

This is not the first time the governor has interfered in the Legislature regarding Medicaid for his own gain. The 2008 session ended in a similar predicament, with neither legislative side willing to yield. The major argument then was between funding the Medicaid hole by increasing the state's meager 18-cent tobacco tax or increasing the hospital tax, a move that would likely force caregivers to pass the additional costs to patients. Barbour wouldn't consider the possibility of a tobacco-tax increase and instead lobbied for Medicaid cuts.

A fluke saved the state's budget that year; state auditors discovered an accounting error that had lost the state $92 million in federal Medicaid funds since 2003. With reimbursement from the federal government, lawmakers could balance the state's budget without resorting to a hospital tax.

In refusing to call a special session, the governor risks halting the operations of countless agencies and departments. If the Legislature doesn't approve a budget before July 1, these offices essentially cannot spend money. That means forgoing employee paychecks, among other things.

Legislators have proven their willingness to compromise for the good of the state. It's time for the governor to stop his preening display of executive power. Call a special session, Gov. Barbour, and let legislators turn their agreement into law.


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