Budget writer: Medicaid taking away from education funding

JACKSON — Funding for education is falling short because Medicaid is devouring a larger share of state money than it did a few years ago, a top Mississippi budget writer says in a letter to teachers and school administrators.

House Appropriations Committee chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, wrote that expanding Medicaid would create more uncertainty about funding for all levels of education, from kindergarten through universities.

“Do you think we should expand the Medicaid program knowing how it may cost the educational community?” Frierson wrote. “Can the educational institutions afford not to take a position on the expansion of the Medicaid program?”

But a Democrat who used to be a budget writer disputes the premise of Frierson’s letter. Rep. Cecil Brown, of Jackson, said in an interview yesterday that money for education has fallen short because of many financial choices, including giving tax breaks to corporations and setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the state’s financial reserves.

“Education hasn’t been funded because there hasn’t been a willingness to fund it,” Brown said, criticizing Republican leaders, including former two-term Gov. Haley Barbour, who left office in January 2012.

Brown was chairman of the House Education Committee and served on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee until last year, when Republicans gained control of the House. The GOP had already controlled the Senate for years.

Many Democrats in the Legislature want to expand Medicaid, a federal-state health insurance program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled and for low-income families with children. Under the health law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010, states have the option of expanding Medicaid coverage to people making 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 for one person. In Mississippi now, the income cutoff for Medicaid eligibility is about $5,500 for one person, though the program still does not cover many able-bodied adults who fall below that limit.

Many Republicans, including Gov. Phil Bryant, say Mississippi can’t afford the expansion, even with the federal government paying most of the cost. The law says the federal government will pay 100 percent of medical expenses for the newly qualified Medicaid enrollees from 2014 to 2017. The federal share would be reduced to 90 percent by 2020, with each state paying the balance.

Bryant has said he doesn’t believe the federal government will fulfill its promises for Medicaid funding. And Frierson’s letter takes aim at two key groups that traditionally support Democrats — those who advocate more spending for education and those who want a larger public safety net for health care.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is a complex funding formula for elementary and secondary schools. It was put into law in 1997 and phased in over several years. The formula has been fully funded only twice, during the election-year legislative sessions of 2003 and 2007.

Mississippi’s population is about 3 million. More than 640,000 people are enrolled in Medicaid, and expansion could add an estimated 300,000.

Lawmakers ended their three-month regular session in early April without adopting a Medicaid budget or authorizing the program to stay in business after the new state budget year begins July 1. Medicaid bills were killed amid partisan disputes over whether to expand the program, though expansion was never brought up for a vote in the House.

Bryant said last week that he thinks he can run the program without legislative approval, but many lawmakers dispute that and believe the governor must call them back for a special session before June 30.

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