June 26, 2009
JACKSON -- The Legislature and Gov. Haley Barbour haven''t passed a state budget with just five days left before the new fiscal year amid disagreements over funding what he calls "the elephant in the room" known as Medicaid.
The impasse is threatening Mississippians with the prospect of some state services being cut off Wednesday if the Legislature and governor don''t approve a budget, said Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.
"Somebody is going to die in this thing if (Barbour) lets this keep going in the direction it''s going," Hood said.
He maintained state law will not allow the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, Division of Medicaid and some other agencies to function if July 1 comes without a state budget to provide people with essential services.
However, Barbour said he has the power to preserve essential services for the "hundreds of thousands of people who depend on state government for health care, public safety and for a lot of different things."
"We''re going to make sure they''re protected. I believe I can do it under executive order," he said.
Hood said some government agencies and "core functions" mentioned in the state constitution could operate. They include the Legislature, governor''s office, courts, state prisons, public schools and health care facilities.
"We''ll continue to function, but it''s not going to be an easy situation for the state and the people who depend on the state''s functions," he said.
"But there are some agencies, though, that are vital to state functions that are going to have to shut down," he said.
They include the state Highway Patrol and Department of Transportation, he said.
Hood said the state Division of Medicaid is not among those empowered by state law to operate without a budget, but he noted federal law requires states to delay cutting off Medicaid services to give the public notice.
Barbour said Thursday the first budget priority is to find money to plug a $34 million deficit in Medicaid for the budget year that ends Tuesday before the Legislature can enact the multibillion-dollar budget for all of state government for the next fiscal year.
State government began the current year last July with a budget of about $18 billion.
The Democratic-led House has been balking at the Republican governor''s demands to preserve his current power to cut Medicaid spending to balance the budget if revenue shortfalls occur in the future.
"If we give Medicaid a blank check, then we are exposing the taxpayers to a ticking time bomb of taxes to pay off huge deficits," he said.
Barbour has refused to call the Legislature back into session to pass a budget until House leaders reach an accord with him and leaders of the GOP-controlled Senate on the Medicaid budget.
He said funding solutions were in the works Thursday, but he declined to go into details.
"They''re being worked through to make sure we can actually do them, to make sure they can work in the way we think. But we obviously can''t adopt the budget for 2010 until we balance our budget for 2009," Barbour said.
"It''s Medicaid that''s the issue of 2009 as well as the elephant in the room for 2010."
This is the closest Mississippi has come in modern Mississippi history to starting a new fiscal year without state appropriations enacted into law to fund state government.
"There is no example of this is the annals of Mississippi history," said House Speaker Billy McCoy.
Barbour held a news conference Thursday in Jackson after returning from out-of-state ventures for Republican fundraisers. He was in New Hampshire on Wednesday and in Iowa on Thursday.
McCoy -- Barbour''s chief Democratic rival -- has criticized the governor for "jetting around the nation pushing the national Republican agenda (while) his citizens -- our citizens -- are concerned about the state services shutting down."
However, Barbour "remains accessible to House and Senate leadership and his staff, even when he is out of state," said Dan Turner, the governor''s press secretary.
"Governor Barbour has been, and remains, extremely engaged in the budget process, and he is committed to having a fiscally responsible budget -- one that creates solutions rather than causes problems."
Barbour''s forays into Iowa and New Hampshire -- states with early presidential contests in 2012 -- have raised speculation about his political aspirations. Barbour said he''s focused now on electing Republicans to other offices. It''s unlikely he''ll run for president in 2012, he said, but he hasn''t ruled it out.