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Medicaid at top of lawmakers’ agenda

Area lawmakers said it was an intense first week of the 2005legislative session, with representatives taking their first swingat a tobacco tax hike to restore benefits to thousands of Medicaidbeneficiaries.

A dollar-per-pack increase failed on a 59-54 vote, with atwo-thirds majority needed for passage. The bill was expected togenerate $200 to fund services for poverty level, aged and disabled(or PLAD) beneficiaries.

“The governor said no new taxes and he would veto the thing,”Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett said of the vote.

Dist. 53 Rep. Bobby Moak supported the bill, while Barnett votedpresent. Like other physicians and pharmacists in the House,Barnett said he voted that way because of his dealings withMedicaid.

“I could not legally, according to attorney general, vote on thebill,” Barnett said.

Moak said Sunday that lawmakers had not seen the last of thetobacco tax proposal.

“That vote will probably come up again, possibly this week,”Moak said.

While there are other bills that would stipulate a smallerincrease, Moak said the figure of $1 per pack likely wouldremain.

“It’s probably just as easy to pass $1 a pack as 50 cents,” Moaksaid.

Moak said the $1 increase would pay for PLAD and address someother needs. He said those should include implementation of somepolicing measures.

“We need to look at and make sure everybody who’s getting themoney really needs the money …,” Moak said. “There’s nothingwrong with doing that.”

In the Senate, Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith was not expectinga tobacco tax hike measure to come out of the Finance Committee.However, Hyde-Smith said another avenue may be through the Healthand Human Service Committee.

The senator was confident that if a PLAD bill makes it to theSenate floor, it will pass.

The tobacco tax hike proposal was lawmakers’ first attempt attackling major budget issues this session.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Barnett said.

Moak said the state is $960 million in the hole.

“We’ve got to do something,” Moak said.

He said the state could lay off 100 percent of state employeesand still be short of a balanced budget.

“That’s how large this thing is,” Moak said.

Like other states, Moak said Mississippi’s revenue is not enoughto pay for programs initiated in stronger economic times. Hementioned teacher pay raises, building renovations and otherprograms.

“There’s not enough generated revenue to keep everythingrocking,” Moak said.

Moak said the solution will be in a combination of controllingspending and finding new revenue.

Barnett said one question is whether lawmakers will tap intotobacco trust funds. He said the fund has about half a billiondollars in it.

“It’s going to have to be some taxes raised somewhere,” Barnettsaid.

Barnett said he is with the governor on proposed budget cuts inmost state agencies.

“There’s not a state agency out there that couldn’t tighten itsbelt and cut 5 percent,” Barnett said.

Also during the first week of the session, the MississippiSchool of the Arts in Brookhaven and the Mississippi School of Mathand Science in Columbus have come under scrutiny for possibleclosure because of limited state funds.

“We’re doing our best to save both the arts school and theschool of math and science,” Barnett said.

Barnett said tuition or a residential fee may be implemented tohelp keep the schools open. However, he stressed that students’families’ income level should be considered.

“I don’t want any child who’s indigent to be turned away becauseof a fee,” Barnett said.

Moak took more of a wait-and-see approach to the artsschool.

“I think it’s a little bit too early for that,” Moak said.

Moak said lawmakers’ priorities are first to cover Medicaid,then to look at education and finally, to look at otheragencies.

“The vast majority of the money is taken up by education andhealth care spending,” Moak said.

Since earlier lawmaker comments about possible school closures,Hyde-Smith mentioned columns and letters to the editor atnewspapers around the state. She indicated that was a goodsign.

“We’re getting a lot of support through the media for the artsschool and MSMS,” Hyde-Smith said.