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Session shows divide between Democrats, Republicans

politicsJACKSON — Democrats are starting their third year as the minority party in both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature, and they’re not making life easy for Republicans.

The first big House debate of the year was over a welfare drug-testing bill pushed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. The four-hour fight demonstrated that Republicans have enough votes to pass almost anything they want, and can do it without even bothering to rebut Democrats’ arguments. Democrats, however, didn’t hand Republicans a quick victory.

Most GOP members sat silently while the Republican chairman of the Public Health and Human Services Committee, Sam Mims of McComb, fielded dozens of questions from Democrats who saw the bill as mean-spirited political pandering.

Democrats also offered several amendments that failed, including one to require drug testing of corporate executives whose companies receive state aid.

“We’re trying to help people,” Mims said of welfare recipients. “We’re not trying to be punitive with this population.”

Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, the House Democratic leader, said during the debate: “It’s just kind of hard to feel the love in the language of this legislation.”

If House Bill 49 becomes law, people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would have to answer a questionnaire, and those deemed likely to be users of illegal drugs would have to submit to a drug test. Mims said if drugs were detected, the person would have to undergo outpatient treatment. TANF benefits would be paid during that time, but would be canceled if the person failed a second drug test after treatment.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services says that for fiscal 2013, which ended June 30, the average monthly payment to a family receiving TANF was $140, while the average payment to an individual was $67. In June, 9,563 families received TANF payments.

The bill passed 74-46, with all Republicans who were present voting “yes” and most Democrats voting “no.” It goes to the Senate for more work.

TANF drug testing is not the only issue with a clear partisan divide.

Many Democrats say Mississippi should expand Medicaid to an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 uninsured, low-income residents. Expansion is an option under the federal health overhaul signed into law by President Barack Obama. The federal government would pay most of the cost, but Bryant and other Republicans say they don’t trust promises of funding.

Democrats are pushing for as-yet unspecified raises for teachers and state employees. There’s been little talk among Republicans about increasing state employees’ pay, and many say the state can’t afford everything the Democrats propose. Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn supports an across-the-board teacher raise, but Bryant and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves favor merit pay.

One day last week, House and Senate Democrats gathered in the Capitol rotunda and called for a swift death to a Public Employees Retirement System bill filed by Republican Sen. Sean Tindell of Gulfport. Senate Bill 2140 would make state and local government retirees wait until 65 to collect an annual cost-of-living adjustment, even if they retire years earlier.

“We’ve got another legislative session, and we’ve got another Republican attack on the retirement system,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

Tindell said he’s trying to preserve PERS, adding that criticism from longtime lawmakers is “disingenuous” because they voted for policies he sees as fiscally irresponsible.

The bill appears headed to defeat because the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Republican Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, opposes it. On PERS, the partisan divide is blurrier. Lawmakers in both parties recognize the political danger of angering state workers and retirees by discussing changes to the system.


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