Barbour’s pledge to reject funds stimulates debate

February 24, 2009



JACKSON -- Leaders of the Democratic-controlled House are hankering to override the governor and accept millions of dollars being offered by the federal economic bailout package to pay extra benefits to people losing their jobs. 


"I, for one, believe we should access every dollar possible," said House Speaker Billy McCoy. 


But the Republican-led Senate will likely side with Gov. Haley Barbour''s decision to reject $50 million he says would likely require Mississippi to later foot the bill for the expanded jobless benefits. 


"The chief executive is the governor, and I trust his leadership on this matter," said Senate President Phil Bryant, the state''s GOP lieutenant governor. 


"I would resist any effort by the Legislature to override the governor''s decision regarding accepting or declining the federal funds from President Obama''s economic stimulus plan," he said. 


The federal stimulus package, which Obama signed into law last week, allocates more than $2 billion to help Mississippi create jobs and fund programs for people coping with the economic recession. 


Barbour wants to decline taking $50 million offered in the program''s unemployment benefits. 


Bryant says he wants to make sure the package "does not turn out to be a Trojan horse that will unleash burdensome federal mandates." 


However, McCoy and other House leaders see the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as much-needed relief for people who lose their jobs. 


"They have not failed the system. The system has failed them," McCoy said. 


The economic bailout package increases by $25 the weekly jobless payments for unemployed people and extends by 33 weeks the normal period they''re eligible to receive the money. The maximum weekly jobless check in Mississippi is $230. 


Barbour has said he''s against a provision in the new federal law expanding unemployment benefits to people not willing to work full-time. He maintains this could force Mississippi to eventually increase the unemployment insurance tax assessed on businesses to pay for this expansion. 


"In this particular case, if we were to take the unemployment insurance compensation money that is being offered -- that''s about $50 million of one-time money -- it would force us to have a tax increase," he said. 


There is a clause in the new federal law that empowers state legislatures to override governors rejecting federal stimulus money. 


"We''ll see if that happens or whether they try to do that, but I am very comfortable (saying) that it''s not in Mississippi''s interest and that the vast majority of Mississippians do not -- in the middle of a deep recession -- want to raise taxes on job creation," Barbour said. 


The Republican governor appeared this morning on Fox News in Washington, where he''s been attending the National Governors Association meeting and making frequent TV news appearances in recent days. 


Mississippi Democrats have criticized Barbour for speaking out against the federal stimulus funds. 


"It''s bad to say somebody doesn''t want the money," said Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus. 


The massive economic stimulus initiative is a $787 billion combination of more spending and new tax cuts to save or create more jobs, spur the country''s crippled economy and help relieve state and local governments'' budget pressures. 


For Mississippi, about $800 million is earmarked for Medicaid, $734 million for education and $415 million for transportation construction, according to estimates provided by the U.S. Congress and Mississippi Legislature. 


The White House announced Monday that Mississippi and other states Wednesday will receive the first installment of the Medicaid funds. 


For Mississippi, about $137 million is in the pipeline to provide health care coverage to families hit hard by the economic crisis. 


"This plan will also help ensure that you don''t need to make cuts to essential services Americans rely on now more than ever," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.