By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
Budget concerns will again be a big part of the Mississippi Legislature's session this year, according to State Rep. Greg Snowden, District 83 representative.
At a Council of Governments meeting on Monday, Snowden said the session, which began a week ago, will last 90 days.
The biggest action of the first week, he said, was passing appropriations bills that will put money mainly at community colleges and IHL facilities for bad roofs.
Traditionally, he said, this money has been generated by bonds.
"This is the way we would like to do it. You don't want to borrow money for long-term when, let's face it, you have a volunteer department buy a fire truck, the truck is rotated out before it's time to pay off the bond," Snowden said. "That's not really good business so we're trying to appropriate for those things."
Of course the state's budget is always of serious concern to lawmakers, Snowden said. Even though the state's revenue is up by about $230 million, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee is proposing to spend less because there will be more than $400 million less coming in this year since that money was from one-time appropriations.
Snowden says many lawmakers are being cautious about spending money.
"We're still not back to the revenue levels that we enjoyed in 2008," he said. "We hope to be back to that level in a year or two. We're going to be in a challenging time with budgets for some time yet."
Education reform will get a lot of attention this session as well, Snowden said.
"It's an ambitious education reform agenda that there is broad support for, bipartisan support for. We're going to see that move forward," he said.
While he did not have a lot of details about the specifics of a proposed charter school bill, he did say it would include a language that would allow the governing school board of a school district earning an A, B, or C rating to vote whether or not it would allow a charter school in the district.
It would also create a governing board to oversee charter schools in the state, rather than giving that authority to the Mississippi Board of Education, he said.
Mississippi's response to the proposed expansion of Medicaid benefits will also be an issue during the session, although it may not be addressed by lawmakers this year, Snowden said.
There are two issues with regard to Medicaid and the Affordable Health Care Act, he said.
The expansion of Medicaid would extend eligibility of people who could qualify for the health program. Snowden reminded everyone that it had been designed to be mandatory for states but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that part of the bill and left it up to individual states to decide whether they want to expand services.
Another feature of the Affordable Health Care Act is that it will stop Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) programs, he said, which reimburses hospitals for indigent care costs.
"The idea was that was going to be made up by expansion of Medicaid program to kind of fill in that gap," Snowden said "But now that the expansion of Medicaid is in the air as to whether the states can afford that, as you can imagine the hospitals are very concerned about whether or not they are going to continue to receive these DSH payments."
DSH money will be phased out, but indigent care costs will continue, whether or not a state expands Medicaid, Snowden said.
"I will not be surprised if we don't do anything this session about the expansion of Medicaid," Snowden said. "It may be premature until we get a better fix on it."