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Legislative votes become campaign fodder

 

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

 

JACKSON -- The campaign is nearly underway for the 2015 Mississippi legislative elections, a time when lawmakers often find that past decisions come back to haunt them in nasty attacks by their opponents. 

 

Voters can expect flailing against incumbents who spoke in support of the Affordable Care Act, the health reform law pushed by President Barack Obama. 

 

And there could be targeting of legislators who took tough stances on more Mississippi-specific issues. 

 

Recently, Mississippi legislators have voted on proposals for state employee pay raises and expansion of state participation in the Medicaid program, both of which failed. 

 

During election season, voters very likely will see these themes in the spotlight as members of the Legislature seek re-election. 

 

When the House started dealing with early versions of budget bills this past week, Rep. Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, offered the same amendment on about 40 bills -- to give each state employee a raise of at least $1,000 in the year that begins July 1. Each time, his amendment was defeated, with the vote mostly along party lines with Republicans opposed. 

 

Stringer's plan would have cost about $39 million in a $6 billion state budget. 

 

Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, told the Republican-majority House that budget writers have tried to find money for a state employee pay raise, but they've been unable to do it. 

 

Stringer was Appropriations chairman from early 2004 to early 2012. He said most state employees haven't received a raise since 2007. The economy faltered in 2008 but is improving now, he said, so this is a good time to reward loyal workers. 

 

The issue of Medicaid expansion came up when the House was dealing with that program's budget. Under the health overhaul that Obama signed, states can offer Medicaid coverage to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 a year for one person. 

 

In Mississippi now, the income cutoff is about $5,500 for one person, and many able-bodied adults are not eligible for Medicaid coverage, regardless of how little they earn. 

 

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, argued that Medicaid expansion would help working people whose jobs don't provide insurance -- construction workers, waitresses, store clerks and mechanics. He said legislators should ask those people how they pay their medical expenses, "and then tell them why you have taxpayer-funded health insurance for a part-time job." 

 

Frierson said he appreciated Brown's offering the amendment, noting that the subject is unpopular among conservatives. 

 

"The district I have, it gives me an opportunity to get a vote in against expansion," Frierson said. 

 

There are, of course, other types of roll call votes that will be used for or against incumbents as they seek re-election or run for higher office. Opponents will research the votes on taxes, abortion and other divisive issues. 

 

"I'd say anything here is political fodder," Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, the House Democratic leader, told The Associated Press. 

 

Frierson, in a separate interview, said that no matter what Republican leaders propose for state employee pay raises, "the opposition will always up the ante.... If I had brought Johnny (Stringer)'s plan out, I'm of the opinion they would've tried to double it." 

 

At this point, the House has passed a teacher pay raise, and the proposal awaits Senate consideration. Final budget negotiations take place in late March. 

 

Not coincidentally, 2007 was a legislative election year. Happy state employees make happy, active voters -- and that might make a pay raise a real possibility during the election-year session of 2015.

 

 

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