Nothing to be done

As I write this (June 14) there is no budget deal. House and Senate negotiators continue their disagreement over permanent Medicaid funding, particularly about the amount of a hospital assessment (though all concede there will be a hospital tax in some amount), and, of equal importance, whether and to what extent hospitals preferentially will be “protected” from future Medicaid cuts if it becomes necessary to reduce services or pare provider reimbursements further down the line. These critical differences must be resolved before any budget vote can be had.

The dynamic this year (in developing the FY 2010 budget) is different from past sessions in several important respects. First, without an agreement on Medicaid funding, there will be no budget at all. Last year, the Legislature adopted a budget in regular session with the idea of “fixing” the Medicaid deficit problem in a late summer special session. That approach was a dismal and expensive failure, and will not be repeated. This year, Medicaid will have to be fixed in advance, as part of the overall budget, or there will be no state budget at all. That much, at least, appears clearer every day. And June 30 is the “hard” deadline.

Second, only permanent, recurring revenue will suffice to “fix” Medicaid. We’ve gone the one-time money route before. The use of one-time money essentially is a temporary, band-aid technique, and does not yield a permanent solution. A permanent answer necessarily entails a positive adjustment (adding permanent revenue through a reinstated hospital tax) or a negative one (imposing cuts in Medicaid or upon other agencies), or some combination of the two, in order to resolve the recurring $90 million annual hole. This politically is as difficult to accomplish as it is fiscally easy to comprehend.

Finally, there is the obvious fact that the regular session expired without a budget, and the Legislature is not currently in session at all. With rank and file members at home, the leaders in both chambers largely are deprived of the opportunity to use regular members as polemic props while budget conferees confer to no effect. I don’t know what they did on the Senate end, but during the now-ended regular session, irritable and irritated House back-benchers periodically were subjected to harangues about the stubbornness of the Senate or the manipulations of the governor, generally contrived for maximum media reportage.

No more. Rank and file members are home today, and will remain there until the leaders fulfill their responsibility to craft a budget deal. Governor Barbour has pledged to call everyone back to the Capitol in special session only after a budget deal is struck, and not before. As a consequence, the pressure remains squarely on those who need to feel it the most: the relative handful of budget negotiators charged with developing an overall budget plan which the leadership of both House and Senate jointly will recommend for adoption by the Legislature.

“Nothing to be done.” That sums up quite neatly the posture today of all legislators except the few who actually are engaged in ongoing budget negotiations. For the six or so negotiators, though, there exist three ever-present, self-evident truths: (1) A permanent funding solution is necessary to “fix” Medicaid; (2) No special session will be called until budget negotiators announce their agreement on a permanent Medicaid funding plan; and (3) Unless and until the Legislature as a whole is called into special session to adopt the House/Senate leadership’s joint recommendation, there will be no FY 2010 budget at all, not for Medicaid, for education, or for anything else.

Rep. Greg Snowden
Clarion Ledger