Lawmakers talk mental health work

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 26, 2009

What started as an agreeable question and answer session withBrookhaven’s three local legislators grew stern Monday morning whenthe Mississippi Department of Mental Health became a topic ofdiscussion.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, took the leadin calling for reforms for the department at the Brookhaven-LincolnCounty Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast, saying thedepartment’s leadership handles its budget “like a child.”

The response was to an audience member’s question regarding lumpsum budgeting, a question Hyde-Smith interpreted as dealing withthe department and last week’s vote on House Bill 681. The billwould have allowed the department of mental health to transfer funsaround its budget without oversight.

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Hyde-Smith, who sits on the Performance Evaluation andExpenditure Review committee that last year released a criticalreport on the department’s operations, said the bill wouldmarginalize a meticulous, pre-session budget planning shepersonally oversees for the department.

“When they run out of money, they say they need lump sumauthority – ‘Forget all that stuff we told you at the beginning ofthe year,'” she said. “When you look at how they’ve handled theirbudget, it’s like a child.”

Hyde-Smith said the department has “basic management problems.”She said the Legislature must be careful in approving lump sumappropriations for the department – which the House approvedoverwhelmingly with HB 681 – because its leadership could be backasking for more money within a month.

Hyde-Smith also accused the department of using scare tactics toinfluence legislators. She said a recent rumor around the mentalhealth community in Brookhaven that 11 jobs at the JuvenileRehabilitation Facility would have to be terminated without HB 681were untrue.

“Then they blame the Legislature,” Hyde-Smith said. “Someagencies can handle [lump sum payments], some can’t.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who will sit on thepanel for a public hearing concerning the department Mondayafternoon, backed up Hyde-Smith’s accusations. Currie was the onlyrepresentative to vote against HB 681 and – like Hyde-Smith – hasseveral bills introduced that will implement reform in thedepartment of mental health.

“There’s some people you can trust, some you can’t,” she said ofthe department. “They’ve built 144 houses with decorators, customcurtains and marble countertops, and we have mental patientssitting in jail around this state. We can’t get patients from jailto the crisis centers we built for millions of dollars. There’sjust a breakdown somewhere.”

Both Currie and Hyde-Smith have several bills awaiting action intheir respective chambers that would change the department ofmental health in several aspects, from requiring state-housedpersonnel to pay rent to outlining qualifications for itsdirector.

“We want someone to come in and run this agency,” Curriesaid.

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, offered a differentview on the situation. He said HB 681 would allow the department toavoid layoffs in financially short areas, and said there should beno major actions taken on the department of mental health while thestate suffers through a bad economy.

“We are in a fiscal year that ends in July, and we’ll alwayshave budget deficits,” he said. “I think we have to get throughthis year and honor our commitments.”

The lines in the sand between Brookhaven’s lawmakers also existon the issue of voter ID.

Moak said the subject is “definitely a black/white issue” in theHouse, and he will continue to oppose the implementation of voterID on behalf of older blacks who remember being threatened anddisenfranchised during the Jim Crow era.

“They don’t forget those things,” he said.

Hyde-Smith favors a voter ID with an age exemption for elderlycitizens born before 1945. She said physically requiring thoseelderly to pick up a voter ID would do more to disenfranchise themthan the stigma of the past.

“Some never drove, their children take them everywhere andthey’re just not going to vote if they have to go get an ID,” shesaid.

Currie said she would vote for the Senate’s voter ID bill,including the age exemption. She did, however, say that the mainreason for opposing voter ID – racial stigma – is obsolete.

“We just elected Barack Obama. We are getting to the time inlife where we’ve worked together, lived in the same neighborhoodsand I think times are changing,” she said.

The three lawmakers found themselves more agreeable on theplight of Medicaid. Despite a wide range of political philosophiesbetween them, all three were in favor of diverting some of theforthcoming cigarette tax revenue to shore up Medicaid, and allthree are opposed to Gov. Haley Barbour’s insistence on a hospitaltax to make up the program’s $90 million deficit.

Additionally, Moak assured the audience the Legislature wouldnot divert sales tax from cities this year, while Currie saidMississippi School of the Arts is in no immediate danger of fundingcuts.