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Department of Employment Security entangled in bickering

The list of items on the upcoming special legislative session agenda just grew by one.

The state’s funding of Medicaid had already assured itself a spot on the to-do list once Gov. Haley Barbour calls lawmakers back to Jackson to finish up business that was left undone before the regular session ended in April.

Barbour, who has complete control of the special session agenda, said April 28 that he will include the reauthorization of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES).

The agency assists unemployed Mississippians find work and provides workforce training. Barbour has not indicated when he plans to reconvene the Legislature.

“Recently, I received official notice from the U.S. Department of Labor that the failure of the Legislature to reauthorize the Mississippi Department of Employment Security will severely hurt our state and many citizens,” Barbour said in a statement. “If this indefensible lack of action — caused by some in the House of Representatives pushing an issue which has nothing to do with operations of this vital department of state government – were to stand, unemployed Mississippians can not receive their benefits, businesses will see their unemployment insurance tax rates dramatically multiply and the State will lose millions of dollars in federal grants.”

The issue to which Barbour refers stems from some Democrats in the House who say Barbour has stocked MDES with his political allies.

Another bone of contention is the Legislature’s lack of oversight on how the agency spends its advertising dollars. MDES is one of several state agencies that promote their services through print, radio and television advertising.

Officials with the MDES office of public information did not return a message seeking comment.

Funding for MDES comes from a mixture of state money and federal grants. The agency’s annual budget hovers around $218 million. In 2006, a legislative watchdog committee released results of a study that found $14 million in taxpayer money was spent by MDES on advertising.

Lawmakers must reauthorize the agency before the fiscal year begins July 1.

“The Legislature’s failure to act hits hardest, first, at the very people least able to take the blow, that is unemployed Mississippians whose benefits would not be paid,” Barbour said. “Secondly, the state’s employers, most of them small businesses, would be faced with an eight-fold increase in the Federal Unemployment Tax Act rate from .8% to 6.2%. The usual FUTA credit of 5.4% for all Mississippi employers will be denied, resulting in a $409-million tax increase on Mississippi’s employers.

“Obviously, this situation is completely unacceptable and must be corrected before June 30. It is absolutely essential that the Department of Employment Security be reauthorized so these important benefits to taxpayers and beneficiaries can continue.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .


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