Lawmakers see schools, Medicaid as top 2013 issues

Published 5:03 pm Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Area lawmakers are steering into a potentially tumultuous session centered around headline legislation on charter schools and Medicaid but are also keeping their eyes trained on local issues.

     The 2013 legislative session opened Tuesday. Lincoln County’s two representatives in the state House, the Democratic Bobby Moak of District 53 and Republican Becky Currie of District 92, are largely staking out positions on hot button issues in line with their respective parties.

     In interviews this week, Currie talked up charter schools while acknowledging they won’t be a cure-all. Moak continues to remain more skeptical toward the proposal.

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     Currie says the state can’t afford the burden of expanded Medicaid rolls as called for by The Affordable Care Act (often called “Obamacare”) while Moak believes the enticement of federal dollars is too good to pass up and offers a potential economic boost to the state.

     The two representatives largely find themselves on the same side of some local issues, though, including support for some state funding of county bridge repair, a big wish list item for Lincoln County supervisors.

     They also both support the addition of another Chancery Court judge for the area’s Chancery Court District Four, which is Amite, Franklin, Pike and Walthall counties. That district currently has only one judge, and apparently has a deep backlog of cases.

     Speaking Monday of charter schools, Moak, the Democratic minority leader in the state House, cast his thoughts about charter schools as one of dollars and cents.

     “My question is, will we need additional taxes at the local level to fund a charter school?” he said. “The tax question is the big one for me.”

     If new taxes aren’t levied, Moak asked, does local revenue earmarked for schools get divided among the traditional schools and charter schools located in a given district?

     A further erosion of revenue for traditional public schools could make bad districts worse, the District 53 representative warned.

     Though there aren’t any bills available yet for review, Currie believes “the money will follow the child” under any proposals. She also emphasized that charters schools aren’t being put forth as a cure-all for the state’s education woes.

     “Whether or not this is the magic bullet, I don’t have any idea,” Currie said. “But the deal is, we’ve got to do something and we’ve got to get out of the box that we’re in.”

     Moak doesn’t dispute that at least some schools in the stare are in need of correctives.

     “We’ve got some serious problems with education in some districts in the state,” Moak said. “All kids deserve a decent education regardless of how we get that.”

     A charter school is a public school but operates with a high amount of autonomy as compared to traditional public schools.

     Republican leaders in the Legislature, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, have been ardent supporters of charter school legislation.

     Currie sits on the House Education committee, so she will have an opportunity to vote up or down on whether a charter school bill passes to the full House.

     On the potential expansion of Medicaid rolls in the state, Currie was blunt.

     “There’s absolutely no doubt that we can’t expand Medicaid,” Currie said. “We can’t pay for our share of it.”

     The Affordable Care Act envisioned an expansion of who’s eligible for Medicaid. However, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that otherwise upheld the act ruled states could opt out of the Medicaid expansion with no penalty.

     Moak believes the extra federal money that would come with a Medicaid expansion shouldn’t be spurned.

     Federal money would cover 100 percent of Medicaid costs during the first three years of the expansion. After that, federal money would be gradually scaled back until it hit 90 percent of Medicaid costs, with states providing 10 percent of the remaining costs.

     Federal funds already cover about 73 percent of Medicaid costs in Mississippi.

     Currie is skeptical, though, such an influx of federal dollars will materialize.

     “I don’t believe we’ll get it,” Currie said.

     And even with extra federal money, Currie believes additional people on Medicaid rolls will still eventually ultimately cause the program to cost the state more than it does now, and she doesn’t think the state can afford that.

     Said Currie, “There’s too many ifs for me.”