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Hurricane rebuilding and growth issues concern South Mississippi’s legislators

South Mississippi legislators see the just-ended 2008 legislative session as a mixed bag of issues addressed and those not addressed as the area’s hurricane recovery continues. Those concerns continue to be the high cost of insurance, lack of affordable housing and the rebuilding of infrastructure. They, along with all other legislators, are prepared to return to Jackson for a special session to deal with unresolved Medicaid issues.

“We didn’t solve a lot of problems like the people we represent wanted to see, but we were successful with some things,” said Sen. Tommy Moffatt of Gautier.

Chief among those successes he lists additional monies for the state’s Wind Pool, the passage of some requirements to help the State Port and other places rebuild and added tax incentives to aid builders of affordable rental housing.

Moffatt, who represents South Pascagoula, Gautier and Ocean Springs, was not closely involved with the failed bill to allow tax incentives for non-gaming development by casinos.

“We had a pretty good bill going from the Coast, but there were add-ons from other parts of the state to limit where gaming can locate,” he said. “It got very confusing, and some who were for it even voted against it because of the confusion. It got caught up with the end of the session when a lot of strange things happen. Then, some will vote against casinos no matter what.”

Gaming bill bogs down

Rep. Dirk Dedeaux represents District 93, which includes parts of Hancock, Harrison, Pearl River, Stone, Forrest and Lamar counties. He says the casino development bill got bogged down in politics above his level.

“It didn’t get the same warmth in the Senate that it got in the House where it had support,” he said. “My first guess was that it was anti-gaming sentiment, but the more I’m up there I just don’t know. It will come up again next year.”

He and Moffatt doubt the casino proposal will be on the special session agenda, which can only be determined by the governor.

Dedeaux is concerned about storm recovery and his constituents still living in trailers and Katrina cottages. “There were funds set aside to match some federal government recovery funds, which were forgiven,” he said. “I wanted to see those funds go toward Katrina relief, but most of it went into the general budget. The cost of insurance is a big issue on my mind, and it will continue to be.”

Sen. Tom King of Petal represents parts of Forest, Lamar and Perry counties where the diversified and rapidly-growing communities are interested in education, medical issues, military affairs and transportation. He serves as chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.

“My committee failed to get more money for highway and bridge construction,” he said. “We’ve got the governor’s pledge to help next year. We’ll think outside the box and may use some private funding.”

King is dismayed that Medicaid funding was not passed. “It’s a shame we didn’t solve this issue. It affects 600,000 people, a lot of whom are elderly, and we’ve got to go back and deal with it,” he said.

He was, however, pleased that for the first time in a non-election year the Mississippi Adequate Education Program was fully funded. “We also got bonding and funding for restoration and renovation at the University of Southern Mississippi,” he said. “I feel positive for our education community even though we need to do more for the Institutions of Higher Learning and the community colleges. We did a good job with the funds we have.”

Checks and balances?

Rep. Mark Formby of Picayune thinks the session went well, although he observes two totally different philosophical majorities in the House and the Senate. “It makes it frustrating. but creates a system of checks and balances,” he said. “The biggest thing we dealt with was the budget in a year of projections of shortfalls. We put more funds into education and I think people appreciate that.”

There are transportation issues in his fast-growing Pearl River County area, too. Formby and others are working with the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the federal government to re-route traffic around Picayune’s downtown.

He expects the special session to come in mid-June when the two legislative bodies will again bump into those philosophical differences. “The question is where are we going to get $90 million for Medicaid?” he wonders. “Some legislators would like to go into the system and eliminate abuse. It’s estimated to be 2%, and 2% of $5 billion would be significant.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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