CATEGORY: Legislature

AUTHOR: BOBBY

HED:No rest in capital on Easter

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - Important deadlines are forcing the Legislature to work Easter weekend as the legislative session nears a close.

For much of this week, the Legislature has been involved in the conference committee process.

A conference committee occurs when key members from the House and Senate meet to work out differing versions of the same legislation.

On Saturday, most of the work will take place in conference committees. Saturday night is the deadline to file conference reports on appropriations bills, while Monday is the deadline for general bills.

"It (conference committee process) is nerve-racking because everyone is tired and wants to go home," said House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo. "Sometimes people's attitudes can get a little out of whack over deadlines that we must meet.

"But it is a necessary evil," he said. "I don't see any other way to get to common ground without this process."

Much of the attention during the conference process has evolved around the House and Senate education conferees. They have been meeting for more than a week to try to work out an agreement on the Adequate Education Program, which has been called the most significant education legislation in 25 years. The program would provide additional money for all school districts. Its primary focus, though, would be to infuse extra funds into property-poor districts which lack an adequate tax base.

On Thursday, some House members worried that the Senate might delay action on other conference reports until an agreement is reached on the Adequate Education Program, a priority of Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who presides over the Senate.

But House Speaker Ford said late Thursday afternoon that work is progressing on all bills that are in conference.

"I think we are moving alone fairly well," Ford said. "I feel better today than I did yesterday at this time."

Sen. Grey Ferris, D-Vicksburg, a member of the conference committee for the Adequate Education Program proposal, said legislators are working in conference committee on all education bills.

But he admitted the Adequate Education Program is "occupying a lot of attention because it is a major piece of legislation."

He called it the "No. 1 priority for the Senate."

Work on the program is moving slowly because legislators are looking at different, complicated formulas to determine the best method of providing equity funding, and there are differences in how much the House and Senate want to spend on the program.

The House version would cost about $118 million when fully enacted in seven years, while the Senate version would cost about $179 million when enacted in six years.

Ford expressed confidence Thursday that a compromise would be reached on the program. He and Musgrove are scheduled to meet this afternoon with members of the conference committee for an update.

Ford predicted that other legislation - not the Adequate Education Program - could be where there are disagreements during the last week of the session. A fight could occur over the appropriations bill for the Department of Environmental Quality. Amendments were placed in that bill on the floor of the House prohibiting DEQ from spending any money to permit a hazardous waste facility or major hog farm.

Another fight also is shaping up on managed care. Last year, the House and Senate fought during the last days of the session over whether to establish a health maintenance system for Medicaid patients in some pilot counties.

Under the system, HMOs would be provided a set amount of money by the state to provide health care for any Medicaid patient who signed up for the program in the pilot counties. The House reluctantly agreed last year to a limited pilot program, but voted earlier this session to kill the pilot program.

But a conference report has been filed allowing the HMO pilot program to continue in Warren, Jackson and Harrison counties. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Tupelo, and a staunch opponent of the HMO system, was on the conference committee, but did not sign the report.

If the House rejects the HMO proposal, it would force conference committee members to continue meeting to reach an agreement.

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