Bryant: Some budget issues to be life-and-death matters

Editor’s note: This is the final of two stories developed from an interview with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who who visited the Starkville Daily News Thursday afternoon. The first installment appeared in Saturday’s paper.

Budget priorities – in at least two cases – may come down to asking how many lives will be put in jeopardy if certain agencies aren’t funded, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said.
When commenting on the current budget situation facing the state, Bryant said: “Here’s the priority I’m looking at; We literally have to say ‘If we don’t fund this particular agency, how many peoples’ lives will be in danger?,’” Bryant said.
He provided examples, including the Mississippi Highway Patrol, where there they are understaffed by 128 working personnel, including 75 road troopers.
“If we do not have a trooper’s school and put those 75 back, people will die; the DUIs, the speeders, not being able to get to automobile accident and get medical treatment there quick enough; lives are in jeopardy if we do not do that,” he said.
Mental health officials are looking at closing four regional facilities, putting some 1,500 people at risk, Bryant said. “Some of those 1,500 people will die. Unfortunately they will be suicides, they will be people who will harm themselves or others. If you don’t have treatment, they will end up in jails; This is a perilous situation we’re looking at” in public safety and mental health, he said.
Regarding education, K-12, community colleges and the state’s universities are “fighting over some of the same pie. You hate to pit those against each other, they need to be working together, but the dollars are so short,” he said.
Officials have not put together a revenue projection yet, he said. “We’re struggling with ‘11 and looking into ‘12.”
Because at least a segment of the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage will be going away, officials believe Medicaid is looking at needing about $540 million.
State officials have moved over about $130 million in stimulus money into Fiscal Year 2012. The state’s Rainy Day fund has about $150 million remaining, he said, adding he thinks state officials may pull about half of it, or around $75-$80 million. The state Health Care Trust Fund holds about $140 million and officials would take some money from there, Bryant said.
“But still, you’re ... at least $500 million short going in and that is going to be tough,” he said.
Bryant also talked about other issues facing the legislature, including redistricting, which he said “is going to be huge.” He said: “I never realized until I got into looking at this how bad this current plan is. ... We’ve got 500 split precincts in the House. How did that just happen?”
There has been a gentlemen’s agreement that the House would take the Senate plan and the Senate would take the House plan, he said. He said he met with House leadership who said they knew the Senate would not look at the House’s plan.
“I said ‘Yes, we are.’ I cannot stand by in good conscience and look at a House plan that has been gerrymandered, that’s got another 500 split precincts. They say ‘Oh, no, no, no; we’re not going to do that.’ Well, then good. We won’t have a problem,” Bryant said. “You send me a fair House plan that has the same standards that the Justice Department has set out and we’re good with it.”
He said later on in the interview: “I just do not plan to go in and violate federal laws or gerrymander districts. We’re going to try to be fair as we can and that’s all you can do, just be fair. It’s going to be a struggle.”
Also, no one is certain how the recent health care reform bill will impact states, Bryant said. Projections show that if Medicaid rolls are expanded to add another 350,000 to 400,000 people, that would put about 1 million, or about a third of the state, on the plan, Bryant said. “We just can’t sustain that,” he said. “I think you’ll see a large number of physicians retire in Mississippi or stop taking Medicaid patients.”
Regarding his own political future, Bryant said he expects to make an announcement in January. “We’ve been traveling the state a good bit when I can, asking people what they think about me running for governor,” Bryant said.
When asked how he would handle both a campaign and his duties as lieutenant governor, Bryant said: “A lot of weekends. ... My first responsibility though is to be lieutenant governor. ... I will be at the capitol for three months doing my job as lieutenant governor and then we’ll hit the campaign trail full-time.”