June 27, 2009
JACKSON -- Gov. Haley Barbour has summoned Mississippi lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special budget session starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, just three days before the state''s new fiscal year begins.
"While I regret the need to call the Legislature in on Sunday, everyone should agree we have an ox in the ditch," Barbour said in announcing the session Saturday.
House and Senate negotiators had still not agreed Saturday on how to fund Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy. Barbour has been saying for weeks that he would not call a special session until the entire budget was ready. He altered that stance Saturday, saying he did not want the stalemate over Medicaid "to keep other departments and agencies unfunded."
The Republican governor controls the special session''s agenda, and so far he has included consideration of budgets for "special-fund" agencies that get their money from fees, such as the Department of Transportation and the Public Service Commission. He''s also asking lawmakers to plug holes in some agencies'' budgets for the fiscal year that ends Tuesday.
Barbour is asking lawmakers to approve Mississippi''s second cigarette tax increase this year. The first, which he signed into law in May, increased the excise tax by 50 cents a pack -- from 18 cents to 68 -- on all brands of cigarettes. The new proposal would increase the excise tax by another 25 cents on cheaper cigarettes made by companies that did not participate in the 1997 settlement of Mississippi''s massive lawsuit against larger tobacco companies.
The governor also is asking legislators to authorize the state auditor and Tax Commission to auction about a million packs of contraband cigarettes seized by federal and state agents in a raid several weeks ago. Officials estimated the auction could bring the state $5 million to $10 million.
And, he wants the House and Senate to move $27 million into a fund that subsidizes the annual discounts Mississippi drivers receive for their car tags. Without the transfer, the price of tags could increase anywhere from a few dollars to a couple hundred dollars apiece.
After the initial round of work is complete, Barbour said he''ll expand the special session agenda to include consideration of dozens of bills for the nearly $6 billion "general fund," the largest part of the budget that covers everything from public schools to prisons.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said he hopes negotiators can quickly agree on Medicaid funding.
"We have a lot to accomplish in a short period of time, but I have full faith in our staff that we can make this work," Bryant said Saturday.
Longtime legislators say this is the closest Mississippi has come in decades to starting a fiscal year without a spending plan.
The budget is usually approved by early April, but lawmakers gave themselves more time to work this year because they wanted to see how the federal stimulus package would affect Mississippi government. Talks then stalled over Barbour''s proposed $90 million annual hospital tax to help fund Medicaid.
Barbour said last week he can run state government by executive order if there''s no budget by Wednesday. Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, disagreed. Hood said a court order would be needed to keep some programs in business, including the Highway Patrol.
House Speaker Billy McCoy, a Democrat, said completing a budget on time will be a "monumental task."
"Only if this state''s services abruptly halt will the world little note or long remember," McCoy said Saturday. "Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. I look forward to a rapid conclusion."
House Democrats have opposed Barbour''s plan to tax hospitals to help pay for Medicaid. The Mississippi Hospital Association has been fighting the tax, saying it would hurt the facilities'' finances. Health advocates worry extra expenses would be passed on to patients.
Medicaid executive director Robert Robinson said in a letter Saturday to Medicaid providers that the hospital association has used "misinformation and scare tactics" to try to defeat the governor''s proposed hospital tax. Hospitals paid a similar assessment for about a dozen years until the federal government blocked it in 2005. Barbour said the revised tax is the hospitals'' "fair share" to help the state pull in federal money to cover Medicaid expenses.
Efforts to reach a hospital association spokeswoman were unsuccessful.