Thursday, February 14, 2008
Report from the MS House of Representatives
By Reps. Tommy Woods, Jack Gadd and Kelvin Buck
Committees and sub-committees of the House of Representatives worked overtime this week to deal with hundreds of bills whose fate will soon be decided, as the 2008 session nears one-third complete.
Not only did our committees consider dozens of bills, they also held hearings with state agencies and advocacy organizations that have asked for certain pieces of legislation to be approved (or rejected, in some instances). In many cases, sub-committees held hearings and voted on bills before they were presented to the full committees.
The House of Representatives was grieved this week to learn of the death in an accident of Jody Compretta of Bay St. Louis, 37, the son of our Speaker-Pro Tempore, Rep. J.P. Compretta. Compretta was a businessman and active in numerous civic and charitable organizations along the Gulf Coast. He also assisted many homeowners after the Coast was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Services for Compretta were held Feb. 6 in his hometown.
The committee work during this fifth week of the session was accomplished as one of the session’s most important deadlines – for House and Senate committees to act on general bills and constitutional amendments originating in their own chamber – approached on Tuesday, Feb. 19. Following that will be the Feb. 28 deadline for original floor action on those same measures.
There was an important meeting of the Medicaid Committee at which the issue of face-to-face recertification for program benefits was discussed. Officials from the Governor’s Division of Medicaid claim that “face to face” has saved the state millions of dollars through enforcement of the verification rules and requiring supervisory review of cases. Critics claim many Medicaid clients, including thousands of children, have been needlessly dropped from the rolls, and that little or no fraud has been discovered through “face to face.” A pediatrician said the problems arising from the “face to face” process is what ultimately sends many Medicaid clients to the emergency room, a very expensive healthcare option. Medicaid is an almost $4 billion program, with federal funds (more than $3 billion) paying the lion’s share of the bill.
The Ports and Harbors Committee heard from representatives of the Port of Gulfport and the nearby Island View Casino. The port is still struggling to recover from the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina, and has not reached its insurance settlement as yet. There was much discussion as to the direction in which the port will expand in the post-Katrina era and how that will affect Island View Casino, which pays the state $7 million annually in lease fees. It was stated that the Panama Canal’s expansion will benefit the state port. There is also indication that the port could become the home to at least one cruise line in the future.
Another Coast-related matter came before the Ways and Means Committee, which heard a report on the homeowner grant program in the wake of Katrina. The panel was told $123 million has been disbursed in phases one and two, which were basically compensation for home losses. The more difficult phase will be for renters and low-income persons, and those funds are more restrictive due to EPA concerns and other related issues. Hopefully, this will be settled soon. A major worry is the 7,000-plus residents still in FEMA trailers (down from 38,000 originally). Ways and Means was told that the Governor’s Office is handling the diversion of funds from the Coast to the Toyota plant. MDA is “not managing those funds,” the committee was told. On another matter, the committee was told that MDA staff had met recently with economic developers in Southwest Mississippi to work on progress there.
Ways and Means also heard a discussion on having a tax-free holiday before school starts each year. The State Tax Commission leader told the panel that it would be hard to oversee due to having re-program cash registers and computers to handle the changes from a taxed item to a non-taxed item. The proposal has been before the Legislature several times in past sessions.
Our new Select Committee on Poverty heard a presentation by a state education research official showing that as of 2005 there were 591,549 people in Mississippi who met federal poverty guidelines, or 21 percent of the state’s population. We have the largest number of people in poverty in the U.S., with neighboring Louisiana second, then New Mexico, District of Columbia and West Virginia. Humphreys, Holmes, Coahoma and Issaquena counties have the most people in poverty. In “quality of life,” we are next to the bottom behind Louisiana. Poverty brings on all sorts of familial problems, including lack of academic success, behavioral problems, substance abuse and long-term economic problems. The committee will be studying ways to eliminate some of the poverty problems in our state.
In floor action this week, we approved HB 144 to extend the law giving small loan companies to offer borrowers a chance to purchase auto club memberships after approval of a loan. The membership cannot be sold to the borrower unless it is requested and the finance charges cannot exceed 18% APR. We also passed HB 591 restricting eminent domain to direct public use, and we extended the law allowing the lease of farm lands owned by our prison system
Gov. Haley Barbour’s 2008 Health Insurance Summit this week touted the benefits of a Mississippi Health Insurance Exchange program, whose creation could result in extension of health benefits to thousands of small businesses and their employees. Nearly 134,000 Mississippians work for small businesses that don’t offer employer-sponsored health insurance. Barbour’s Mississippi Health Insurance Exchange Program is designed to provide Mississippians a way to buy, own, and keep health insurance from job to job.
The state-authorized health insurance exchange would function as a market clearinghouse for health insurance options, and participation would be entirely voluntary. For small businesses, the exchange would serve in an administrative role akin to a human resources department at a larger corporation.
The House this week moved closer to the webcasting of House proceedings. We approved the live Internet showing of House debates earlier in the session, and it soon will be available for you.
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