When partisanship comes first, people come second

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 14, 2008

During the summer, the Legislature spent 10 days in special session unable to decide how to come up with $90 million to cover a shortfall in the state’s obligations to Medi-caid, the federal-state program that provides health-related services to one of every four Mississippians and half of all children.

The House wanted to raise cigarette taxes, but was willing to split the difference with the Senate, which wanted to raise assessments paid by hospitals. The Senate, doing the bidding of Gov. Haley Barbour, would not compromise on the assessment-only route.

Lots of other activity went on in lots of other venues, including courts, before last week’s announcement that a paperwork error had been discovered from many years ago. Further, rejiggering federal matching funds to correct the error would cover the shortfall.

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Now, let’s ask ourselves this question: Suppose the divide between the Democrats who lead the House and the Republican governor had been bridged. Suppose either the tobacco tax or the hospital assessment or both had been enacted before the paperwork error was discovered. What do you think the chances are — given that the $90 million was no longer needed — that another special session would have been called and the higher taxes (or assessments) immediately rescinded?

If you answered “zip” or “nada” or “nil,” you’d be correct.

‘The newest bluster and blow is over where on the ballot the names of the two candidates vying in a special election to replace Trent Lott will be placed on Nov. 4.’

In this case the partisanship in state government worked out for people’s wallets. But if the tax had been enacted, another use would have been found for the money. The people aren’t the priority.

Another illustration: In the same way that Ike followed Gustav a new Democrat-Republican storm brewed up in Jackson just as the Medicaid crisis passed.

The new bluster and blow is over where on the ballot the names of the two candidates vying in a special election to replace Trent Lott will be placed on Nov. 4.

Barbour and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann say the law is clear — or clear enough — that special election matters go at the end of general election ballots. For that reason, they approved a ballot that will have the U.S. presidential contest at the top, the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Thad Cochran and Democratic nominee Erik Fleming next, then U.S. House seats, then local matters such as school board races, with the state’s hottest race — between Roger Wicker and Ronnie Musgrove — at the very bottom.

The reason the Wicker-Musgrove contest is a special election is that Lott resigned a year into his six-year Senate term. Wicker has been serving as Barbour’s appointee in the interim, and the Nov. 4 winner will serve the four years that will be left.

Another special election quirk is that they are nonpartisan. That means even though Wicker is clearly a Republican and Musgrove is clearly a Democrat, their party affiliations will not be on the ballot.

Within mere moments of the ballot order being set, a petition was filed, conveniently in the court of Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green, by Jackson attorney Sam Begley. It insists that Barbour’s order was wrong and both Senate races should be at the top of the ballot, right under the presidential contest. The names of Green and Begley might not be immediately recognized, but they are strongly associated with Democratic Party causes. Green is a former member of the House. Begley has represented the state Democratic Party in previous causes.

And, miracle of miracles, while some parties wait years and years for court rulings, within a few minutes of Begley’s request being submitted to Green, she ruled —issuing an immediate  restraining order declaring that Barbour’s notion of placing the Wicker-Musgrove contest at the bottom of ballots might cause “irreparable harm.”

Two considerations come to mind: What does it say about state Democrats that they believe their voters may not be able to find Musgrove’s name if it’s on the last page of electronic screens instead of the first? And what does it say about state Republicans that they believe it might help Wicker if some voters don’t make it all the way down the page?

Of course, Green’s order was appealed. Barbour has ample allies on the state Supreme Court and they tossed Green’s order like yesterday’s garbage. Later in the week she held a hearing, but it will come to naught.

To be fair, Barbour, as he did regarding the Medicaid shortfall, insisted that politics is not part of the picture. Indeed, he says, former Secretary of State Eric Clark, a Democrat, consistently put special elections at the end of ballots.

A guess, however, is that the citizenry sees exactly what’s going on. When partisan considerations are first, the public’s interests are second — if considered at all.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s amusing. But it can be very serious.