Medicaid, education seen as top legislative issues

Published 7:55pm Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Mississippi Legislature will convene in regular session at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 7, and the biggest debate will be over Medicaid expansion, say local legislators, but educational funding and the support of Common Core are two other top items pressing lawmakers.

Medicaid 

Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said if the legislature does not pass the Medicaid expansion, Mississippi will pass over 19,000 job openings in the medical field and millions of dollars a day that could be funneled to state hospitals and medical providers.

“So, of course I’m for it,” he said Saturday. “It’s sort of a misnomer – the expansion is just a change in the way medical providers are given money – a new way the federal government is saying, ‘This is how we are giving you money, now.’

“The Affordable Care Act is not accepted by the state of Mississippi,” Moak continued. “So that means we are losing three million dollars a day that would be divided up between the providers and the hospitals.

“There are smaller county hospitals that will close down within two years without the expansion, and medical services will get cut back,” the legislator said. “It’s not just Medicaid, it will also affect the services available to Medicare consumers and people who pay out of their pocket. Without Medicaid expansion, Medicare people pay because the services will not be there for them to access.”

On the other side of the issue, Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, is against Medicaid expansion, citing poor administration of the program already in place.

“I’m a registered nurse, have been for 30 years, and I’m not for expanding Medicaid, but I am for getting rid of the way Medicaid is run,” she said Saturday. “The states that have done [the expansion] have run into a big mess. We still don’t know what all is in the 2,800-page health care bill and it changes every day – I think that right now we need to tend to the people we already have on Medicaid better than we are tending to them right now and we need to run Medicaid better.

“We need to get rid of “Mississippi C.A.N.” – it’s managed care ran by two insurance companies, Magnolia and United. The state is making them rich and they are doing a terrible job of running Medicaid. [Mississippi Medicaid is] not taking care of the patients it covers, nor are our medical providers getting compensated for services they provide,” Currie said.

“I have been up there to see them a couple of times this past year because they owe KDMC $700,000. So, no, I don’t know if I want to expand a program like that. We need to do a better job with what we have now and serve those people better,” Currie said.

Education

Legislators agree that teachers deserve a pay-raise, but they will be taking a closer look at Common Core, a federal initiative that was formally adopted by the state last year.

Opponents of Common Core say it is just the federal government trying to step in and tell schools what they will teach their kids.

Moak said the set of guidelines that states are adopting to ensure kids will have success across state lines had bipartisan support last year.

“The governor and the legislative committees in both the house and the senate were in full support of it last year, now the Republican heads of the house and senate are now saying they aren’t going to support it.”

Currie said the educational committee will take a close look at Common Core’s guidelines.

“Common Core is something we will be looking at,” Currie said. “I’m on the education committee and we’ve never talked a about it, but we are this year.

“What we don’t want is something sent down from the federal government that changes history or changes our freedoms, and there is a lot to Common Core to worry about.

“The local school board chooses the curriculum in Common Core,” she said, “but the state may not support it – our governor has made a proclamation that the federal government will not tell us what we can teach in our schools.

“But what happens is the schools feel boxed in – if they don’t do this then they won’t get their state money, and if they don’t do that and follow that policy then their federal money is gone – they get stuck in the middle. What we want to do is put that power at the local level, let the local school boards decide,” Currie said.

Moak said Common Core is about guidelines and not dictates.

“Common Core is not a list of books or subjects that they want educators to use,” Moak said. “It’s a list of objectives that the local districts will have to live up to it, and it’s up to the different districts to decide on what they will teach. I’m going to let my school board and my school district decide that.”

When it comes to funding, everyone agrees Mississippi’s education system needs more of it.

Moak said, “I’m for fully funding education at the state level – when the state doesn’t pay for education, locals pay more taxes – when we don’t fully fund education, we pass that burden on to local taxpayers.

“When we pump money into our school districts, I believe we will see what our districts will do – what they are capable of,” Moak.

Currie and Senator Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, agree to more funding at the classroom level.

“Our educators need to be paid more,” Currie said. “Our teachers deserve a raise and we are working on getting more money into the classroom. Last year we approved debit cards for teachers to get supplies for their classrooms – $300 for every Mississippi teacher to make sure their class has what they need.”

Doty said the Mississippi Adequate Education Program has issues, but she supports educators seeing more money.

“We adopted MAEP 16 or 17 years ago and have only fully funded it twice,” Doty said, “So that makes me wonder if it is a good formula and. Maybe that is something we need to look at. There are a lot of different needs when you look at education and not just cost per pupil. Which leads me to teacher pay raises. Other state positions have not seen a raise in years either, but if a teacher pay raise comes out of committee, I will supports it.”

Unsung battles 

These local legislators say there are a also few unsung battles in the upcoming legislature, such as funding for the highway patrol, rethinking our prison sentencing system and rainy day funds.

Currie is concerned that the state faces a serious state trooper shortage.

“We will be looking at funding for our highway patrol schools,” Currie said. “They are in dire shape with a lot of needs. It’s a pretty desperate time for them right now and they are desperately under-staffed. There is already a shortage of officers. and you have to understand that when they start a school it’s a year and a half before they can put a trooper on the road – so if they don’t get started now and fund these schools, there will be major problems.”

Moak said it will be a challenge to decide what Mississippi’s rainy-day funds will be spent on.

“We’ve got over a billion dollars in rainy day funds,” Moak said. “These are funds that we have been collecting from taxpayers and never spent. We don’t need to give away the store to the corporate guys; those dollars don’t come back to our state. We either need to spend it on roads, or use it for other infrastructure projects. The state is not a banker, and hoarding money should not be what it means to be a conservative. Either spend the money on things the state needs or pay it back to the three million taxpayers of Mississippi.”

Doty said a topic of concern is public safety

“Public safety is going to be a big issue,” Doty said. “Mississippi has the second highest rate of incarceration in the U.S. behind Louisiana – so we are going to be looking at ‘truth in sentencing’ – the criminal justice task force, consisting of Mississippi legislators and different officials around the state – put out a report that makes specific recommendations on how we can tighten our sentencing, how we can have more supervised sentencing, and more post-incarceration supervision.

“[Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections] Chris Epps always says we have to decide who we are mad at, and who we are afraid of,” Doty said, “and that’s what we are going to have to do. We want to make some changes in sentencing and this is something that has bipartisan support. It won’t be a battle between parties but it will be a lot of work.”

To see a schedule of upcoming legislation for the Mississippi Legislature visit the website, www.legislature.ms.gov.