Friday, May 30, 2008

The Compromise Not Taken

Last night, after a day of endless Medicaid hearings, followed by a long Medicaid Committee debate on a "bill", followed by an overhaul by Ways & Means, followed by the Medicaid Committee concurring, a Medicaid bill came to the floor.

The previous House position on funding Medicaid was to increase the cigarette tax by $1 to $1.18 per pack.

The bill before us increased the cigarette tax to $1 per pack, as well as taking half of the Governor's plan for the hospital assessment. While this may seem like something in the middle, it actually raised far more money than was needed to fund the Medicaid program (by at least $100 million). Such a bill, while it may give the House a stronger negotiating position, was unnecessary. The conference committee process could have worked back in the regular session, but the truth is it didn't work.

At the beginning of debate, I offered an amendment on the floor that would pay for Medicaid, even giving about a $10 million cushion. It would have taken half of the Governor's plan, as well as increased the cigarette tax by 25 cents to a total of 43 cents. The cigarette portion alone would raise $72.5 million of new revenue. Half of the Governor's plan would raise $54 million, for a total of $126.5 million; sufficient money for the FY 09 and then some. Plus, if you only raise the cigarette tax by 25 cents, you still can increase the cigarette tax more next year and connect it with some other tax break.

It was a compromise that had a better chance than any other bill thus far at getting through the process. It was a compromise many of my colleagues, in conversation, had favored.

In the end, the House majority chose not to step to the middle towards achieving an actual solution and defeated my amendment.

Every day we're here, we spend at least $40,000 of taxpayer dollars. And what have we accomplished this week? We passed a revenue bill in 15 minutes. We still haven't reached an agreement on MDES. And when there was a common sense solution presented for Medicaid, it was shot down.

However, the House majority suffered the consequences of not choosing a compromise. After they Christmas treed an alcohol sales tax increase (which was completely unnecessary, would have create nightmares for restaurants, and only raised $5 million of a $90 million hole), the butchered Medicaid bill fell 10 votes short of the required 3/5 majority. 10 votes may sound small but will be large deficit to try and plug on the next try.

I assume that after their defeat, a separate compromise will be offered. But I think the best solution, at this time, in this special session, realizing that we're wasting $40,000 a day, is to pair half of the Governor's plan with a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax. It's not the immediate $1/pack solution that many of us originally wanted, but it's a proposal that would actually demonstrate that the House is trying to achieve a solution for the people we represent. Right now, all we're demonstrating is that we are perpetuating a broken and dysfunctional system.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Special Session Update...

Yesterday, the House passed two bills. HB 12 provided $88 million in bond authorizations in case Mississippi is chosen as the site for the National Bio Defense Lab. If chosen, the lab would locate in Flora, MS. There's expected to be around 250 jobs, mostly going to researchers in the field.

The other bill was SB 2011, which would raise the weekly unemployment compensation from $210 to $255 over the course of two years. The original Senate bill would have raised the unemployment payments to $225 in the upcoming FY 09, and then to $235 in FY 10. However, the House amended the bill to raise it $45 over two years and then provide an annual cost-of-living increase.

One of the common misconceptions of unemployment compensation is that it equates to welfare payments to those people who don't want to work. Actually, unemployment compensation is only paid out to those people who were laid off (note "laid off", as opposed to "fired"...if you were fired, then you are not eligible for unemployment benefits) because of their plant closing, moving to Mexico, etc.

However, I think the smarter thing to have done was to use the Senate's version and raise it incrementally over two years to $235 and then revisit the issue again. When debate was going on, no one supporting the bill could answer the question of how much this was going to cost the unemployment trust fund. That in itself was really ironic, seeing as though we were asking the same questions two months ago, and they said they would get back to us. Well, here we are two months later, and they still can't tell us how much it's going to cost to raise it to $255 per week. So....

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On a personal note...

Over the weekend, I reached the pinnacle of over achievement by getting Kate to agree to marry me. We're planning for the fall.

Day 1: $59,895 for 3 bills

We ended up not getting much of anything done today.

There were 11 items on the Governor's call for special session. The House took up three of these items, and an attempt was made to take up a fourth.

1. MDES (Mississippi Department of Employment Security) was reauthorized for one year. It gives the House a year to further study the whole advertising oversight thing. That may sound good, but if you're going to grill one agency over its choice of advertising mediums, you could probably have a field day with the rest of them as well.

The problem with the bill is that the Senate will pass a different version of the bill, which will most likely delete the repealer on the agency altogether, so they would not have to come to the legislature for renewal. I sort of see both sides to it. I have a few questions about the quality of MDES's customer service to the businesses it exists to serve, but I don't think holding the agency's existence hostage in order to answer those questions is the only, or the best, way to handle things.

2. The toll road bill passed the House. This bill has a great deal of potential to help Hattiesburg.

3. We paid ourselves for our two-plus hours of work. But the bill was held on a motion to reconsider, so we'll see what happens with that. The sad irony was that while I was listening to the proceedings in the Senate chamber after the House had adjourned, the main parliamentary inquiry one senator had was whether or not he was going to get paid.

4. There was a clever attempt to attach voter ID to our pay for the special session, and surprisingly, it only failed by a 8-vote margin, which equates to 5-person spread. Mark Baker and Philip Gunn were the architects of this near-successful attempt at getting an actual vote on voter ID.

The House adjourned Sine Die just after 2 p.m. The Senate is still in session and will probably work tomorrow as well. We'll be called back in Tuesday for an additional special session.

My one hope is that maybe, just maybe (and I know it's a long shot), but it would be so great if the House, Senate and Governor's Office could actually talk and come to some consensus on what we will or will not take up. Each day they don't costs you anywhere between $39,420 and $59,895.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Special Session Called for Wednesday, May 21

Today, we received the text message from the Governor's staff that we would indeed be going back into a special session next Wednesday at 10 a.m. The main items will MDES and Medicaid, even though it hasn't officially been added.

The Hattiesburg delegation is also hoping that our Assistant DA bill (which was vetoed last week) is added as well.

I suppose it's part of the process, but you would hope in future years, that we would be able to get in, do the job we were elected to do and go home in the time allotted- without the need for special sessions that cost taxpayers ridiculous amount of money.