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Senate committee kills bill to replace PERS Board

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mississippitoday.org – Bobby Harrison – 2024-04-02 18:08:32

A House plan to dissolve the member-elected board that governs Mississippi's massive public employee pension plan and replace it with a board dominated by political appointees died Tuesday in the Senate Structure Committee.

The bill's angered House Speaker Jason White, who called the move “irresponsible.”

Sen. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, chairman of the committee, said Tuesday afternoon — hours before a deadline for action on the measure — that he would not call the bill up for consideration. Instead, he called for the current board to become more transparent by livestreaming all of its meetings.

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He also urged the board to delay the start of its plan to increase by 5% the amount public entities, and local governments, school districts and universities and colleges must contribute to the program.

The 5% increase is to begin with a 2% increase in July and be phased in over three years.

That planned increase, which board members said their financial experts reported was needed to ensure the long-term financial stability of the Public Employees Retirement System, caused controversy in the Legislature. It led to the House plan to replace the existing elected board. The House acted after many state agency heads and local officials said the increase would cause financial distress and a possible reduction in services.

As of now, the board's plan to increase the amount governmental entities contribute to their employees' paychecks for retirement from 17.4% to 22.4% over a three-year period remains in effect.

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Ray Higgins, executive director of PERS, did not say whether the PERS board would heed Johnson's advice.

“We appreciate the committee's focus on PERS and their suggestions,” Higgins said. “PERS is such a very important system, not just for our membership but for the entire state. We the continuation and sustainability of PERS and look forward to working with the Legislature in the future.”

Johnson said senators had received messages from “thousands and thousands of PERS members” who objected to dissolving the board. The current board is comprised primarily of people elected by PERS members. PERS has a massive impact on the state with about 360,000 members, retirees, current employees and former public sector employees who have not yet retired. Under the House plan that was killed in the Senate committee Tuesday, the new board would be comprised of people appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor.

Killing the legislation “was the right thing to do,” said LeGrand, past president of the Mississippi Retired Public Employee Association and a former member of the PERS board. He said he supported keeping the current board in place and had mixed emotions about recommendations to delay the increase in the employer contribution rate.

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“That will be up to the current board to decide,” he said. Earlier, board members had voiced opposition to the House plan to dissolve the current PERS board.

Speaker White, R-, said in a statement he was disappointed the Senate killed the House bill. He criticized Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann specifically for the demise of the legislation.

“The lieutenant governor and Senate's failure to address the long-term sustainability of our state's retirement program is irresponsible to not only PERS retirees and participants in the system but Mississippi taxpayers,” White said.

Hosemann in a statement said: “The PERS system's long-term viability continues to be a serious concern. The Senate and the House need to work together to find a solution. Transparency and trust, from both the Legislature and retirees and employees, will be critical for us to move forward. The Senate is committed to protecting retiree and current employee benefits while balancing the budget.”

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The system has assets of about $32 , but debt of about $25 billion. But Johnson said that debt was “a snapshot” that would be reduced by strong performances from the stock market.

He stressed that no member of the Senate Government Structure Committee supported any change in the benefits that PERS members received. He said the system had assets to meet its obligations.

The system depends on the contributions from governmental entities, a 9% contribution from employees and its investment earnings for its revenue. Some senators said they believed the board overreacted by imposing the employer contribution increase. Whether the board will heed Johnson's recommendation to postpone the increase in the employer contribution remains to be seen. Another option would be for the Legislature to infuse funds from its current revenue surplus into the system.

But White said, “Over the next three years, and the foreseeable future if no action is taken, the proposed 5%-10% increase requested to fund PERS will also have the effect of limiting government services, and eliminating state and local government employees.”

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi Today

Business leaders urge legislators mulling Medicaid expansion to improve access to health care

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mississippitoday.org – Bobby Harrison – 2024-04-16 17:08:04

Powerful business groups are urging legislative leaders “to work together” to improve care access as they negotiate whether to expand coverage for and by how much.

“Access to healthcare is not just about individual health, but about the well being of our entire community,” the Mississippi Economic Council, Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the Business and Industry Political Education Committee said in a letter to House Speaker Jason White. “It means a healthier population, a healthier work force and an improved quality of life, all of which contribute to stronger Mississippi communities.”

White released the letter on social and said, “We appreciate the business community's to provide healthcare access to low-income Mississippians. A healthy is dependent on a healthy workforce.”

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The House, where White presides, has passed legislation to expand Medicaid as is allowed under federal to people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level or about $20,000 per year for an individual. The Senate's proposal would expand Medicaid to those working and earning less than 100% of the federal poverty level or about $15,000 annually.

House and Senate leaders are in the process of trying to hammer out their differences on the issue.

While the business groups did not explicitly endorse either plan, they did say they routinely expected state leaders to “responsibly” use federal dollars for education, and for other services.

“Let's give our hospitals and healthcare experts the same opportunity so hard-working Mississippians will benefit,” the letter leaders said.

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Under the House plan, the federal government would pay 90% of the health care costs for those covered by Medicaid expansion. Under the Senate plan, the federal government will pay about 77% of the costs, which, according to studies, means fewer Mississippians would be covered at a significantly higher cost to the state under the Senate plan.

In addition, under the House plan, the state would an additional nearly $700 million over a two-year period, which the federal government is offering to the 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

‘A matter of life and death:’ Hundreds rally at Capitol for full Medicaid expansion 

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mississippitoday.org – Taylor Vance – 2024-04-16 16:53:27

Charles and Cheryl Penson shuffled up the steps of a bus in at 4 a.m. on Tuesday to begin a long day's trek to the state Capitol 

The reason the Pensons, both of whom are ministers, traveled over three hours to the seat of Mississippi's government is they know several people in rural northeast Mississippi, including one of their own daughters, who could benefit from expanded coverage. 

Their daughter is a businesswoman and a single mother, they said, who works hard at her job, but she could use assistance with costs, especially to help her young child who has experienced health issues recently. 

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“I am here because I want to see what is morally right done for the people of Mississippi,” Cheryl Penson said as her husband nodded in agreement. “If you have a heart, you have to have a heart for all people.”

The husband and wife weren't alone. 

The two joined hundreds of doctors, clergy and other Mississippians from over 35 communities across the Magnolia State who shared stories of their own at a “Full Expansion Day” rally at the Capitol. They urged legislators to expand Medicaid coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Christine Dunaway of Jackson told Mississippi she attended the rally because she spent 20 years as an advocate for people living with disabilities as the former director of Living Independence for Everyone of Mississippi.

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“I worked with so many people over the years who would have benefited from Medicaid expansion — working poor people trying to go to work, who didn't have insurance, couldn't afford it, didn't have access to it,” Dunaway said. ” … I was born missing three limbs. My would have been considered middle class, but they couldn't afford prosthetics back then.”

As personal stories meshed with religious sermons the concrete steps on the front of the Capitol became like church pews when faith leaders from different religions and Christian denominations pleaded with legislators to give poor Mississippians access to health insurance.  

“As a state that is proud of its pro-life stance, it is only fitting that this Legislature now leans into the opportunity to make it possible for all Mississippians across this state to have full access to health care,” said the Rev. Reginald Buckley, pastor of Jackson's Cade Chapel M.B. Church.

But just hours earlier, some of those same ministers and participants appeared to take James' epistle of “faith without works is dead” to heart by beginning their day of advocacy in actual pews at the historic sanctuary of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in downtown Jackson. 

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The morning service in one of the oldest Black churches in Jackson started with songs, prayers, scripture centered on civilly pressuring the 174 state lawmakers in Jackson to pass expansion.

“We thank you for collective power, but surely Lord we know that apart from your power, we can do nothing,” the Rev. Dr. C.J. Rhodes, the pastor of the church, prayed. “For it's not by power nor by might, but by your spirit, says the Lord of hosts. So breathe upon us, give us your spirit, oh God, and give us your blessings so that we can do what seems to be impossible even today.” 

The prayers of accomplishing the insurmountable, though, quickly turned into advocacy chants, the new sanctuary became the 2nd floor rotunda of the Capitol and the hymns morphed into telephone calls that flooded the voicemails of holdout legislators. 

After the morning of worship, the interdenominational group assembled signs, slapped supportive stickers on their shirts, reviewed phone-banking scripts and tweaked message to their local legislators over expansion.   

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“Jesus is the reason that I'm here,” said Brittany Caldwell, a coordinator of community engagement for Great Rivers Fellowship and Natchez resident, said. “To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a disciple in both word and action.”

The rally in the middle of House and Senate leaders attempting to negotiate a compromise on Medicaid expansion legislation after the two chambers passed drastically different plans earlier in the

The House's expansion plan aims to expand health care coverage to upwards of 200,000 Mississippians, and accept $1 billion a year in federal money to cover it, as most other states have done.

The Senate, on the other hand, wants a more restrictive program, to expand Medicaid to cover around 40,000 people, turn down the federal money, and require proof that recipients are working at least 30 hours a week. 

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“When do we want it? Now!” Was the chant from Medicaid expansion supporters Brittany Caldwell and Gregory Divinity, during a rally at the state Capitol, Tuesday, April 16, 2024 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Those at the rally made clear they “Full expansion now,” which they frequently chanted, and not the Senate proposal, which its drafters have referred to as “expansion lite.”

Representatives of the two chambers, called conferees, have not yet met in public to haggle over a final expansion plan, and as of Tuesday evening, the Legislature's website did not list a scheduled meeting to take place later this week. 

A natural compromise is for the two chambers to agree on a  “MarketPlus Hybrid Plan,” which health policy experts with the Center for Mississippi Health Policy and the Hilltop Institute at the of Maryland, Baltimore County estimate could save the state money in the long-term. 

The hybrid plan would offer expanded Medicaid coverage through the state's managed care program for those making under 100% of the federal poverty level. For those making 100% to 138% (up to $20,000 for an individual) of poverty level, the plan would use federal money to provide assistance for them to buy private insurance plans through Mississippi's marketplace exchange.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has privately vowed to lawmakers that he will veto any Medicaid expansion bill that reaches his desk, putting the future of expansion in the hands of the Legislature, who can override the veto with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

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House Speaker Jason White, a Republican from West, previously told Mississippi Today in an interview that he believes he can hold a bipartisan group of more than 90 House members, a veto-proof majority, together in support of a compromise expansion package. 

But the coalition of support in the 52-member Senate is more fragile. The Capitol's upper chamber only passed its austere expansion plan by 36 votes, one vote shy of the two-thirds threshold needed to override a governor's veto. 

One reason the expansion debate has caused some Republican senators to oppose the proposal is it's become mired in partisan because of the governor's messaging and hardline conservatives derisively labeling it “Obamacare expansion.” 

But clergy at the Capitol on Tuesday said the issue rises above partisan politics. 

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The Rev. Dr. Jeff Parker, senior pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Jackson, is a self-described “Southern Baptist Republican,” who believes in the Gospel of Matthew, where it says “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” should move Christians to support expansion.

Parker recounted a conversation he had with a friend shortly before the rally who warned him he would be branded as a liberal if he spoke too forcefully in favor of the Medicaid expansion. 

“I looked at him, and I finally said this: ‘Are we reading the same Bible?'” Parker said. “I would challenge every church in the state of Mississippi, regardless of your denominational tag, to take a long, hard look at the book of Matthew.” 

Mississippi Today reporters Bobby Harrision and Geoff Pender contributed to this report.

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Supporters from across the state gathered on the south steps of the state Capitol for a Medicaid Expansion rally, Tuesday, April 16, 2024 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

About Steve Sloan, the worst you could say is he was too nice a guy

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Steve Sloan, who died April 14, spent five seasons as Ole Miss football coach, winning an average of four a season.

Steve Sloan, who died April 14 at the age of 79, spent five autumns (1978-82), mostly unsuccessful, as the head football coach at Ole Miss. I covered those last two seasons as the Ole Miss beat reporter for the . Covering losing football teams is often a thankless chore. Sloan made those two seasons bearable.

My lasting memory of Sloan: He was, without question, the nicest football coach I ever encountered and one of the nicest, most decent human beings, period. Many knowledgeable football folks would tell you Steve was too nice to be a successful football coach in the dog-eat-dog Southeastern Conference, and I honestly can't write that I disagree.

Rick Cleveland

His record over five seasons in Oxford: 20 victories, 34 defeats, one tie. His 1980 team led the SEC in total offense, yet won only three games. His last two Rebel teams won a total of one SEC game, the 1981 Egg Bowl.

And there's a story there. I approached Steve the Monday before the game with an idea for a story that would need his cooperation. Honestly, I didn't think he would do it. I'm not sure I've ever covered another college football coach who would have. My proposal was that he would tell me his Egg Bowl game plan, which I would not divulge in print or otherwise until after the game. My plan was to write about the game plan – and whether it worked or not – in our Egg Bowl special section afterward.

Much to my surprise, Steve said he didn't see any harm in it. Perhaps, he just didn't see where he had anything to lose. And, on Tuesday of Egg Bowl week, he gave me a detailed game plan. He did so while chewing Vitamin C tablets the way some folks chew bubble gum, to fight a bad cold that had bothered him for weeks. I remember telling him he looked like warmed over, and I remember him chuckling and telling me, “Well, buddy, you don't look so good yourself.”

Defensively, he said Ole Miss would play an eight-man front throughout the game. “We'll look like we're in a goal line defense when we're at midfield,” he said. “Our only is to stop the .”

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“Offensively, we know we can't run the ball on them, but we have to run it some just to keep them honest, or we'll never have time to throw,” he said. “Up front, we will double team Glen Collins ('s splendid defensive tackle). We'll use a guard and a center and if that's not enough we'll use a back in pass protection. He's that good.”

I asked him about trick plays. “We've got one pass play we got off TV the other night,” he said, describing a pass play using two running backs out of the backfield in a crossing pattern, hoping to take advantage of linebackers in pass coverage.

Everything worked. State passed only 12 times, despite the eight-man front. Ole Miss ran the ball 35 times for a meager 74 yards, but that helped quarterback John Fourcade have the time to complete 22 of 29 passes. The great Collins, double- and triple-teamed, was not in on a sack. The trick play worked to perfection for a touchdown on the Rebels' first possession.

Steve Sloan, right, with Jerry Clower, the country comedian who played football at Mississippi State.

Ole Miss, a 15-point underdog, won, 21-17. Rebel players awarded Sloan the game ball, and this was one time he earned it.

That didn't happen nearly often enough for Sloan at Ole Miss. A year later, he left for Duke, and not many Ole Miss folks were all that sad to see him go.

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Mississippi football fans of that era will well remember the enthusiasm that accompanied Sloan's arrival at Ole Miss. At the time, he was considered the best bet to be Bear Bryant's successor at Alabama, where he had been Bryant's quarterback and team captain.

He was, without question, the hottest young head coach in the business. He had won at Vanderbilt, for goodness sakes. That's right. He took the Vandy head coaching job at age 28 and in his second year he guided the Commodores to a 7-3-1 record and a Peach Bowl berth. Then it was on to Texas Tech, where he took the Red Raiders to two bowl games in three seasons, including a 10-1 record and a share of the Southwest Conference championship in only his second season at Lubbock.

Then came Ole Miss, where he was then-athletic director Johnny Vaught's hand-picked choice to revive the Rebels slumping football program. The word was Bear Bryant had advised Sloan not to take the Ole Miss job, to remain in Texas until he decided to step down at Alabama. If that was indeed the case, Sloan bucked his former coach and headed to Oxford, where he was greeted as a football savior. The early returns were good. His first recruiting classes were rated among the nation's best. That recruiting never translated into victories.

What happened? Nearly half a century later, this might be an oversimplification, but here goes: Both at Vandy and at Texas Tech, Sloan's defenses were headed by a future coaching legend, a guy named Bill Parcells. Yes, that Bill Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl champion coach. And Parcells was slated to with Sloan to become the Rebels' defensive coordinator. Never happened. The head coaching job at Force came open, and Parcells took it.

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So Sloan came to Ole Miss without Parcells, who was not only a defensive whiz but also the “bad cop” to Sloan's “good cop” at both Vandy and Texas Tech. In retrospect, Sloan's Ole Miss teams lacked the defensive grit, discipline and overall toughness of his Vanderbilt and Texas Tech teams. Even Sloan's worse Ole Miss teams could move the ball and score; they just could not stop anybody.

Had Parcells come to Ole Miss, things surely would have been different. We'll never know, but I believe had Sloan, after losing Parcells, retained Jim Carmody from Ken Cooper's Ole Miss staff, he would have won more games.

That's all conjecture at this point, but this is not: If the worst thing anybody can say about you is that you were too nice, that not all bad. In fact, that's not bad at all.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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