Budget worries still sitting atop legislative agenda

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Lincoln County lawmakers expect a “busy week” ahead aslegislators tackle bills in committees and await some upcomingbill-related deadlines.

“We’re pretty much in full swing now,” said Dist. 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith.

Budget concerns have been dominating talk around the Capitol aslawmakers look for funds to address monetary issues.

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“It’s pretty tough times for the state of Mississippi and theother 49 states,” said Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett. “But we’regoing to dig through it.”

Hyde-Smith said she had received a lot of calls and e-mails fromstate employees concerned about the prospect of having to pay fortheir insurance coverage. Barnett also mentioned efforts regardingemployee insurance.

“It will be preserved. It will not be the same policy we havenow,” Barnett said.

He and Hyde-Smith suggested the possibility of an increase inthe deductible from the current $450 to $1,000. The senator alsomentioned the possible creation of a medical savings plan, whichwould allow employees to set aside money to meet thedeductible.

They both said something will have to be done before the stateruns out of money to pay state employee insurance costs.

“By Nov. 1, we’re not going to have the money to pay premiums ifwe don’t do something,” Hyde-Smith said.

Barnett indicated plan modifications could target retirees andolder employees who are more likely to need and use insurance.

“There’s going to have to be some changes in hospital plans,”Barnett said.

Dist. 53 Bobby Moak said the insurance plan so far is only aproposal from Gov. Haley Barbour. He said Barbour would have topursue it through executive order or get legislation introduced toimplement the changes.

“There’s nothing there for us to act on,” Moak said.

Moak expected legislation would be introduced. However, he saidtaking the insurance benefit away from employees would not befair.

“I’m not supportive of it,” Moak said.

Education funding is another hot topic item on lawmakers’radar.

“We all want to see education fully-funded,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Hyde-Smith said she was confident that Senate EducationCommittee chairman Mike Chaney and House Education Committeechairman Randy “Bubba” Pierce would be able to find the necessarysolution.

Current estimates forecast an overall $709 million deficit inthe budget, including education and other funded areas. Moak saidlawmakers are searching for ways of coming up with that money.

“We’re trying to do it without raising any taxes,” Moaksaid.

Moak was optimistic that the money would be found. He mentionedusing laws to make sure the state is getting all the money it issupposed to be getting from various sources.

“I think we’re going to find it,” Moak said. “I think we’regoing to get there and follow through on our commitment toeducation.”

Medicaid and the Department of Human Services are other bigissues budget-wise that lawmakers must address. To him, Barnettsaid the “Big Three” are Medicaid, public education andcorrections.

Hyde-Smith indicated that changes must be made, but added thatstate agencies don’t want their areas affected.

“Everybody knows we need to tighten our belt, but nobody wantstheir belt tightened,” Hyde-Smith said.

Among other action this week, Thursday is the deadline torequest drafting of general bills and constitutional amendments.Feb. 23 is the last day to have them introduced.

Moak expected lawmakers to be conferring and discussing billproposals with legal counsel as the deadline approaches.

“We’ll be doing a good bit of that,” he said.

Hyde-Smith said lawmakers will have a better idea of what willbe on the agenda once all the bills are introduced.

The senator mentioned several bills that have been introducedalready and would be taken up by her Agriculture Committee.

One bill would create a car tag featuring a farm scene for thoseinterested in agriculture. Revenue from the special car tag feewould go toward marketing efforts for the agriculturedepartment.

“I think we really need to be looking at marketing,” Hyde-Smithsaid. “We know how to produce. We’ve done that extremely well.”

Barnett said there has been some talk about the possibleintroduction of a lottery bill. He had strong reservations aboutthat legislation.

“I would have to be opposed to it,” Barnett said.

Barnett said a lottery may encourage people to spend money theycan’t afford to lose in hopes of getting rich.

“I think it will hurt the poor,” Barnett said.