Mississippi 2014 Legislative Session: Opinions split on issues

Published 12:06 am Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mississippi legislators said they would be paying attention to discussions of entitlement reform and Medicaid expansion during the 2014 Mississippi legislative session.

Mississippi legislators said they would be paying attention to discussions of entitlement reform and Medicaid expansion during the 2014 Mississippi legislative session.

Area legislators said they would be paying attention to discussions of entitlement reform and Medicaid expansion during the 2014 Mississippi legislative session.

Public safety and infrastructure issues will also be a primary focus, lawmakers said.

The session opened Tuesday.

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Medicaid expansion

The issue of Medicaid expansion as part of the state’s response to the federal implementation of the Affordable Care Act was a significant issue during the regular and a later special legislative session in 2013, but an expansion — meant to cover those who make too much to qualify for Medicaid now but too little to qualify for the Act’s government-subsidized insurance exchanges — was not passed.

The federal government has promised to cover 100 percent of the cost for the first three years of the expansion, and then ratchet down payments as time passes.

The area’s Democratic delegates say the issue is one that needs to be resolved, but Republican officials say the issue again won’t likely pass.

District 38 Sen. Kelvin Butler, D—Magnolia, said the expansion would create an economic boon for the state, creating 9,000 new jobs.

“Expansion of Medicaid is the right and only thing to do for the betterment of our state, especially for the working families who can’t afford health care,” Butler said. “I know the governor does not support it and not all of the members support it, but as a legislature, I hope we can look past the rhetoric and do what is right for our great state.”

Butler said he knows the national rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges had some problems, but he believes, as a state, Mississippi will get the kinks worked out.

District 97 Rep. Sam Mims, R—McComb, said the national rollout of the Affordable Care Act was such a debacle the state shouldn’t expand Medicaid. Beyond that, he said, how to fund the expansion is a concern.

“We have been very clear that we do not think we have the money to pay for it, so we will not pay for it,” he said.

District 37 Sen. Melanie Sojourner, R—Natchez, said she doesn’t expect the issue to move forward, either.

“I don’t think anything will really change with Medicaid,” she said. “We don’t see it expanding in Mississippi for sure.”

But District 94 Rep. Robert Johnson III, D—Natchez, said he thinks Medicaid expansion will get some traction this session.

“I think it will get somewhere because we have 300,000 people who don’t have health care coverage,” Johnson said. “They are the working poor who amount to 200,000 who — even if you had a health care exchange — if you don’t expand Medicaid will be left out. People who are working every day and can’t afford health care, they should have it. We need to fill that gap.”

Entitlement reform

Mims filed a bill last week that would require drug testing of certain recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Family funds.

The bill requires those who apply for TANF to fill out a survey about past and present drug activity and other markers indicative of potential for drug abuse, and those who score above a certain point must be drug tested.

The TANF program will then refer the recipient to drug counseling, and they can continue to receive funds while receiving drug treatment, though funds will be suspended if the recipient refuses to enter the program or fails to meet its requirements. The state pays for the drug treatment.

“It is an important issue from trying to improve their lives. I think there has been a misrepresentation of the piece of legislation,” Mims said. “This is different from the legislation passed by Florida several years ago that was ruled unconstitutional. We feel this will empower families because we want people striving and raising their children without using illegal drugs, and that will cause them to be more productive and find good-paying jobs.”

Sojourner said she would introduce a bill tweaking Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — otherwise known as food stamps — that would disallow making small purchases with the SNAP electronic balance transfer card for the purpose of taking out cash back.

“I had several retailers tell me about people who are going in with SNAP cards and buying a $2 item and then taking out $40 in cash back,” Sojourner said. “They have been basically using their benefits that are for well-being and necessities and abusing that cash.

“Those funds are very important for those in a needy situation, so we want to make sure we can get them to the most needy and not have them abused.”

Infrastructure and public safety

Johnson said his primary focus as the chairman of the state transportation committee will be to get back funding the state took from the Mississippi Department of Transportation several years ago. It can be done this year because the state has seen an unanticipated 8-percent growth in funds, he said. “Seven or eight years ago, Mississippi borrowed from the DOT, but never gave that money back,” he said. “I am pushing to see if we can put that money back into transportation and state aid roads, so that money would come back to county roads and bridges.”

Twenty-eight percent of interstate, urban roads and bridges are out of specification or in disrepair, he said, while at least 46 percent of Mississippi’s rural roads are in similar shape.

“We have children on busses crossing those bridges, people who can’t move their timber or crops out of their acreage and we have a booming oil and gas industry in southwest Mississippi that is having difficulty moving in because of the state of our roads,” he said.

Sojourner agreed the need to improve roads is especially important for the oil and gas industry in southwest Mississippi.

“Highway 24 is a continued priority, and as we increase that truck load down there, we have got to find a way to address those needs,” she said.

Johnson said he would again introduce legislation to allow county sheriffs to use speed-detecting radar devices on county roads, a law he said many sheriffs want. While in the past the legislation has been limited to counties with larger populations, Johnson said this year’s bill would have no limits.

Sojourner said she would also spend time focusing on an effort by other senators to make sure the Mississippi Highway Patrol’s trooper school is appropriately funded.

“The MHP has lost a lot of troopers on the road, and they have 100-plus troopers scheduled to retire,” she said. “We have got to make sure we have the mechanisms in place to keep those people on the streets.”

Other issues

Mims and Johnson both said they supported legislation to set protocols for dealing with concussions in high school and junior high athletic events. The measure passed the House last week. “We want to make sure the personnel are following the correct protocols as related to concussions,” Mims said. “Forty-nine other states have enacted some kind of legislation, and we have been studying and looking into this for a couple of sessions and decided to act this session. If this prevents one child from not receiving the correct protocols, we think this is a good piece of legislation.”

Johnson said he thought some parts of the concussion legislation needed clarification — for example, who determines if a concussion has occurred — but it is a good step.

“I think the fact we are looking out for kids who are playing contact sports is important,” he said.

Butler said he would again introduce legislation to establish a lottery in Mississippi. The money generated by the lottery will be used to fund college scholarships for all students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average or better.

“It is a win-win for the state,” Butler said. “There are approximately 45 states that are a part of this lottery thing, and we are one of the five or six states that are left. If it is generating money, it will do the same for us and help educate our children, too.”

Sojourner said she would also work to help craft a tax-free sportsman’s weekend similar to the one Louisiana has in which the sales of certain sporting goods are tax exempt.

District 96 Rep. Angela Cockerham, D—Magnolia, could not be reached for comment. She was not listed as the principal author of any legislation on the Legislature’s website as of Friday.