House moves forward on budget

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Business of the state continued to move along, but the inauguration of the nation’s 44th President, Barack Obama, overshadowed events of the third week of the 2009 legislative session.

House members, staff and young pages watched in the chamber as large screens that were set up for the occasion allowed us to view the swearing-in and other activities surrounding the inauguration.

At our own capitol, committees of the House of Representatives continued to press forward with the consideration of about 1,500 bills that were introduced by our members for the session. Our committees have only until Feb. 3 to “report,” meaning pass or defeat, these measures to the full House.

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The House Appropriations Committee has been busier than most as that panel tries to craft a budget for fiscal year 2010 in the midst of the worst economic times this state and nation have seen in decades. Many of the items that appropriations has reviewed are related to the current 2009 fiscal year. One such bill handled this week was HB 865 to cover the transportation costs for about 500 end-stage renal disease patients across the state who must travel to receive dialysis services.

The federal Medicare program pays for the dialysis services but not for transportation. Backers of the bill, which passed the House floor overwhelmingly, said many of the patients would die without the state’s help on travel costs. The state will spend $1.3 million on the project from the Rainy Day Fund.

Also, the appropriations panel and full House approved taking $68 million of the money that would be raised from an increase in tobacco taxes and apply it to cash-strapped public school districts. The districts have suffered budget cuts for the current ’09 fiscal year, and these funds would restore a major portion of those reductions. While the House passed a cigarette tax increase, the Senate has not yet acted. Some districts are beginning to feel the pinch of the cuts and may have trouble meeting payroll.

Appropriations also heard from state mental health officials who are facing massive budget cuts by Gov. Barbour. The officials said cuts will affect alcohol and drug treatment services, providing wheelchairs and walkers, early intervention programs and a juvenile rehab site. Already, the agency has had to shut down a 35-bed nursing home unit at the State Hospital at Whitfield.

The budget-setting committee also heard from the presidents of the eight state universities, mainly about tuition increases. One said, “The truth is, tuition (increases) is our only way to offset budget cuts. Or, we could do nothing and settle for mediocrity.” The officials seemed against an effort to cap tuition, with one leader saying that would put them at the risk of losing professor quality and quantity.

The key House Ways and Means Committee was asked to act post-haste on a proposal to save 1,200 jobs at the Cooper Tire plant in Tupelo. A bill will be considered soon that would float $13 million in bonds to upgrade the plant and add another facility. Cooper pays an average salary of $54,000 annually to 1,500 workers in Tupelo, which survived a plant-closing round with an Albany, Ga., plant. The Tupelo plant makes after-market tires, which provides more profit than tires for new vehicles.

The House Public Utilities Committee and the full House approved HB 1090 to place the public utilities staff, a state agency, under the direct supervision of the Public Service Commission. The primary functions of the public utilities staff would be investigative and advisory in nature, and its director would be appointed by the three-member elected PSC. Mississippi utility companies have been under the close scrutiny in recent months of both the PSC and the state attorney general, who has sued one utility firm. The PSC and the utilities staff were separated in the early 1990s, and “that’s bad business,” said one leader of the legislation.

The House Conservation Committee discussed allowing the Department of Environmental Quality to charge for its environmental permitting fees. We are the only southern state not to do so. Based on what DEQ might propose, the fees we would charge are far less than those charged by Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. These permits are issued for everything ranging from air quality to water quality, landfills to wastewater discharge. One permit request from Chevron on the coast is over 1,000 pages long and has required the time of five engineers to review and meet with the EPA. These people prevent you from having to abandon your homes in the event of a spill, discharge or disaster. Today, with DEQ on the state level and EPA at the national level, we do have some modicum of reassurance that the water you drink, the air you breathe, and the land you build your home upon are safe.

The House Poverty Committee took up the issue of teen motherhood and its effects on the state. The group heard about a McComb High School program that seeks to keep students in school, as part of the program to help the state reduce its high dropout rate and reduce our highest-in-the-U.S. poverty rate.

Citizens who would like to contact us at the State Capitol can do so at 601-359-3770. Floor action of the debates is being Web cast live at and click “House” or “Senate.”

Angela Cockerham is a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives representing Adams County.