House lawmakers move to accept stimulus funding

Published 6:00 am Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Mississippi House of Representatives on Wednesday announcedits intention to bypass Gov. Haley Barbour and accept every pennyof federal money sent down by the American Recovery andReinvestment Act of 2009.

House Concurrent Resolution 64 has no teeth of its own – a newbill and possibly an adjustment to statute law would be necessaryto override the state’s top executive – but signals the majorityrule of House Democrats to accept almost $3 billion in stimulusfunding, including $50 million for increased unemployment benefitsopposed by leading Republicans. Legislation also would have to passthe Senate, where Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant has expressed reservationsabout accepting some of the stimulus funds.

Wednesday’s House move left local lawmakers with mixedfeelings.

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“The governor doesn’t want to take a portion of the unemploymentfunds, but we believe we should, and the reason we believe weshould is because folks are hurting right now,” said District 53Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto.

Moak said Mississippi statute would have to be changed toaccommodate the stimulus bill’s unemployment provision thatpart-time employees would be able to draw a portion of thebenefits.

Moak also said statute could be changed to revert to originalform in two years when stimulus funds are expected to run out.That, he said, would eliminate Republican fears that the statewould have to continue to fund high benefits in the future withoutfederal help.

Moak acknowledged the difficulty of mustering the politicalfortitude to repeal a program after two years of use, favoringinstead to set a deadline on the benefits now.

“You just put an automatic repealer in it,” Moak said. “Youdon’t collect the political will in two years; you do it right nowso you never have to revisit it again.”

Moak went on to say that Mississippi’s unemployment fund is thelowest it has been since 2005. If federal money is not used toshore it up, an automatic tax increase will trigger and thegovernor’s fears will be realized immediately instead of in twoyears.

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, said the state shouldaccept stimulus money regardless of the act’s long-termstipulations. With Mississippi’s unemployment rate at more than 9percent, he said accepting the unemployment benefits was “the rightthing to do.”

“If the strings attached to it are anything short of sacrificingyour first born to qualify, I can deal with it,” he said. “If wesend this money back, we’d be in the prayers of a lot of otherpeople – ‘Dear Lord, thank you for Mississippi sending this moneyback.'”

Evans supports the passage of a repealer clause in any statutorychanges to erase the heightened benefits when federal money runsout.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven – the only localHouse member to vote against the resolution – said that even with arepealer clause, accepting the unemployment benefits would causeunemployment taxes to go up and put further strain on businesses,which are already suffering.

“We’re trying to create jobs, and that will make it much moredifficult for employers,” she said.

Currie was wary of Democrat claims that a repealer would undothe increase in two years. She worried that Democrats whooverwhelmingly supported the unemployment benefits would notsupport repealing the repealer at the moment of truth.

“It’s very difficult to get something out of law once it’s in,”she said. “Once you’ve been offering a benefit for so long andpeople get accustomed to it, how can you say, ‘Sorry, now it’sgone?’ How would we get it passed again through the same House? Wewouldn’t. Hopefully, the Senate will stop [the resolution].”