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Christian Smith-Socaris on July 23, 2009 - 1:48pm
This year the big story out of the Mississippi legislative session was the governor's high profile refusal to accept all of the federal recovery act dollars. Aligning himself with some other likely 2012 presidential contenders, Governor Barb our decided to put politics above the needs of his constituents, who suffer some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation. In the end all but about 50 million dollars in unemployment insurance subsidies was accepted by the state. However, even with the injection of funds from the feds, passing the budget required two special sessions with negotiations right up to the statutory deadline. In the end, playing politics with economic security of thousands of Mississippians created a significant public backlash and advocacy effort.
Budget and Stimulus: Mississippi has crafted an approximately $6 billion budget. About half of the state's expected $2.8 billion in recovery funds will be used next year to help fill budget shortfalls, in particular a $160 million shortfall for K-12 education. And while the governor was trying to turn down federal help, he managed to push through a $60 million tax on hospitals to cover medicaid costs, and he also won the right to reduce medicaid payments to providers in the future. Besides federal dollars and medicaid cuts, the biggest revenue raiser was a long-stalled increase in the tobacco tax. The current tax is among the nation's lowest, and the governor, a former tobacco lobbyist, had vetoed similar increases many times in the past. The tax was raised 50 cents a pack to approximately 85 cents. This was a compromise with lawmakers in the House originally seeking a dollar increase per pack.
Some highlights of the state's stimulus spending to date:
- $15.9 million to create 6,000 summer youth jobs, according to information available by June 30.
- The state's 52 public housing authorities have received $32.4 million.
- Medicaid enrollment increased 5.2 percent from October 2007 to April of this year. The state has drawn down $207 million in increased Federal Medical Assistance Percentage Funds.
- As of June 25, the Mississippi Department of Transportation had awarded 36 contracts worth $201.2 million and the Office of State Aid Road Construction, which is responsible for secondary roads in the 82 counties, had awarded eight contracts worth $7.2 million. Of the 44 contracts, 25 have construction under way.
- An increase in 2009 Spell Grant funding of $113.9 million over 2008 funds. The 97,000 current Spell Grant recipients in Mississippi will receive an increase in the average award for the 2009-10 academic year from $3400 to $3,850.
- $118.2 million for Special Education Part B State Grants to help improve educational outcomes for individuals with disabilities.
Voter ID: Beyond the budget mess, voter ID legislation was once again an issue that permeated the entire session. As in years passed the Senate passed a strict photo ID requirement for all voters. However, instead of blocking that bill in the House, leaders there attached an early voting provision in the hopes reaching a compromise that would help make it easier to vote in one way while making it harder in another. For a while it looked like this compromise would hold and voter ID would pass. Until conservatives in the Senate used a procedural move to kill the legislation. This stunning turn of events left it clear that a core groups of conservatives value voter ID as a political issue, and are determined to keep the issue alive at any cost.
Other High and Low-Lights:
- Immigration: S 1504 was signed into law and requires the legislature to submit a cost study report on state enforcement of federal immigration laws.
- Energy: Net Electrical Metering was the focus of four bills that died in committee. Allowing the resale of electricity by homeowners back to the utility company when they generate excess power through solar or other renewables would have been a solid victory for clean energy in the state.