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More numbers and a big charge end day three of budget hearings

The third day of budget hearings featured three fiscal heavyweights, piles and piles of numbers and one serious allegation from Division of Medicaid executive director Dr. Robert Robinson.

Robinson and his team presented a budget request that is roughly $201.9 million more than the $451.3 million the agency received in FY10.

As big as those figures are, that wasn’t the most explosive part of Medicaid’s time before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Once lawmakers and Medicaid staffers finished haggling over the numbers — most of the increase depends on the state replacing federal stimulus money — Robinson was asked by Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, about fraud and abuse in the Medicaid system.

Robinson said the fraud among the 609,000 beneficiaries is negligible. But on the provider side, he said, it’s rampant.

“Behavioral health centers are wearing us out,” Robinson said. Robinson, without naming the place, mentioned one behavioral health outfit that received $24 million in Medicaid reimbursements it should not have gotten.

He wasn’t done. “We can’t get anybody to prosecute them,” Robinson said, adding his agency had presented evidence of the wrongdoing but had been turned down by the U.S. attorney’s office and state Attorney General Jim Hood.

“Bob, you and I have been friends for a long time but I just don’t believe state or federal prosecutors wouldn’t have time to track down $20 million,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said at the beginning a lengthy and incredulous rant at Robinson’s assertion. “Hell, we’ve got 40 people that can work on it. I’ll get to the bottom of it personally.”

The Medicaid presentation was the most lively part of a dry, numbers-based day of budget hearings at the Woolfolk Building.

The State Board of Community and Junior Colleges requested $64.7 million in additional funding for FY11, to bring the system into compliance with state law that requires spending on community and junior college students to be in the middle of per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools students and per-pupil spending on students at Jackson State University, Delta State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University. Another $13.8 million would fund a dropout recovery initiative that was given $1.5 million in FY10, bringing the total increase to $78.5 million and the total budget request to $331.4 million.

Dr. Eric Clark, former secretary of state and current executive director of the SBCJC, spent several minutes after the financial parameters had been laid out to lawmakers advocating the mid-level funding law legislators passed in 2007.

“It’s a good law,” Clark said. “It passed unanimously in the House and the Senate and (Gov. Haley Barbour) signed it. It’s a moral obligation just like MAEP. I’m asking you to make it a priority.”

Clark said community colleges provide crucial workforce development programs potential businesses and industry require before they set up shop in Mississippi. “We’re growing the pie,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, told Clark it would be “difficult” to get the full $13.8 million. “But I didn’t intend for this ¬†year’s money ($1.5 million) to be the end, either,” he said.

Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson asked for an 8.4 percent budget increase. The $15 million would fund a trooper school to replenish the Highway Patrol’s personnel. Simpson said 71 troopers have either left or retired from DPS since November 2007. House Appropriations chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said it would be “real hard” to operate a trooper school in FY11 and proposed that troopers who have already retired be allowed to work part-time, similar to what a lot of Mississippi teachers do, as a cheaper alternative than a trooper school to raise staffing levels.

The budget increase would also go toward the Mississippi Crime Laboratory and the state law enforcement academy, along with upgrades to DPS’ outdated computer technology, Simpson said.

The Mississippi Public Service Commission and the Mississippi Gaming Commission each submitted requests that contained no additional funding. Joel Bennett, of the PSC’s finance division, told lawmakers that the Commission “respectfully reserves the right” to alter its budget request after the legislative session starts in January.

“I think they’re all adjustable,” Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said.

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