Politics & Government

Guess who will pay if Trump has his way with budget?

The Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in eastern Jackson County would lose all its federal funding under the budget proposed by President Donald Trump.
The Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in eastern Jackson County would lose all its federal funding under the budget proposed by President Donald Trump. tmsmith@sunherald.com File

President Donald Trump’s budget would cut deep into the millions that stream to the Coast from the federal government, touching most aspects of life — health, education, the environment, tourism and human services.

But those cuts are a long way from reality — and one of the most powerful men in Congress is from Mississippi.

Sen. Thad Cochran chairs the Appropriations Committee, which will be holding hearings on the request for at least eight weeks, the senator’s office said.

“The President’s FY2018 budget proposal will be given careful consideration, but the constitutional power of the purse resides in Congress,” Cochran said by email. “As we proceed with the congressional budget and appropriations process, I will continue to do my best to make decisions that are in the best interest of Mississippi and our nation.”

Cochran’s office said it is far too early to gauge whether the bill will gather the bipartisan support to crack the 60-vote threshold necessary to move it forward. But because it is a presidential transition year, Congress will have less time to pass a budget resolution, the 12 appropriation bills to fund it and to deal with related legislation such as the Budget Control Act and debt ceiling, Cochran’s office said.

That bipartisan support seems unlikely, given the criticism from a wide variety of liberal-leaning groups.

“Ultimately, it makes drastic cuts to Medicaid, which is our focus,” said Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program. “It makes deep cuts to other health and welfare program such as food stamps and disability insurance. These programs boost economic security for families, they contribute to health security by putting healthy foods and safe housing within reach of families that could not otherwise afford them.”

But the Medicaid portion of the budget is by far the most worrisome to Mitchell. He said $839 billion would be cut from Medicaid by the American Health Care Act that recently passed the House, and $627 billion in further cuts would be made to Medicaid in the Trump budget.

“This budget should be a wake-up call for Gov. (Phil) Bryant as well as our legislators,” he said.

The White House said the budget would allow states to “refocus their programs on those who are most vulnerable and to develop State-specific innovations while lowering costs. The Budget would help set Medicaid on a sustainable path and ensure the program could continue to provide care to those who are most vulnerable, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, children, and pregnant women.”

States will pay

Mitchell has a different interpretation. He said the budget essentially allows the federal government to balance its budget at the expense of Mississippi and other states.

“We’ve heard legislators say if we only had block grants, we would have the flexibility to do what we want with the Medicaid program,” he said. “That flexibility is not going to be there when you talk about cuts of that magnitude. The funding would grow more slowly than the actual state Medicaid cost and that would result in even bigger Medicaid shortfalls than we have now, which in turn would force Mississippi to cut eligibility, services, provider payments — or all three.”

That will directly hit the most-vulnerable people, he said. Half of the Medicaid recipients are children, others are elderly and disabled. Then there’s the working poor. Those who lose Medicaid won’t be able to afford insurance. In the past, they’ve turned to emergency rooms at public hospitals, which can’t turn them away, creating financial problems for the hospitals.

“This budget will close hospitals in Mississippi,” he said. “The state will be able to cut eligibility and reimbursement rates at will.”

Sen. Roger Wicker said he is favor of slowing the growth of Medicaid.

“We need to have a national conversation about mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are the real drivers of our debt,” he said. “This is one of the big issues of our time, and I look forward to working with the President to find a solution that slows the growth rate and works for all Americans — including our children and grandchildren.”

And though Wicker said he was glad Trump was making defense, border security, infrastructure and veterans priorities, the proposal was just the first step in the process.

“Under our Constitution, the power of the purse belongs with Congress,” he said. “I intend to work closely with Sen. Cochran, who is Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to ensure that the people of Mississippi and their interests are supported and protected.”

Environmental programs slashed

Meanwhile, environmental activists haven’t found much to like, either. The budget eliminates federal funding for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants and educational programs.

For example, it will cut funding for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, which provides a wide range of services for coastal communities.

“It zeroes their budget out completely,” Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller said. “It’s essentially a dead man walking.”

Funding will be eliminated from the NOAA budget for the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in eastern Jackson County and the Coastal Zone Management Grants as well.

“These grant and education programs generally support state, local, and/or industry interests, and these entities may choose to continue some of this work with their own funding,” the administration wrote in its supporting documents for the budget. “In addition, these grants often are not optimally targeted, in many instances favoring certain species or geographic areas over others or distributing funds by formula rather than directing them to programs and projects with the greatest need or potential benefit.”

It eliminates the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which funnels money from Gulf oil and gas leases to the Gulf states. That brought $200,000 to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources this year, but because of a change in the law had the DMR preparing to see billions of dollars flow to the agency over the coming years.

There are lots of unknowns at the DMR right now, including how the budget would affect NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Service, two sources of funding that flow through the DMR, spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said.

“We’re working with the governor’s office to have a plan to deal with these changes,” she said.

The state also would see more responsibility passed to it to protect the environment. The budget cuts almost in half funding for grants to states to pay for environmental offices and services.

“States may be able to adjust to reduced funding levels by reducing or eliminating additional activities not required under Federal law, prioritizing programs, and seeking other funding sources including fees,” the White House wrote.

That’s bad news for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, Miller said.

“DEQ just took some serious hits in their budget,” he said. “They rely heavily on federal dollars for enforcement and cleanup like the now-declared Superfund site at the gypsum pile in Jackson County. Once again, these are programs that provide crucial services to Mississippi.”

In that cause, Mississippi Phospates in Pascagoula had set up a $12 million trust to maintain treatment of the super-acidic wastewater from the mounds of gypsum — but that money was spent in just 17 months. And the federal government, with state help, has had to step up and pay to protect the environment.

And the budget would eliminate funding for the National Flood Insurance Program’s Flood Hazard Mapping Program. It reasons that because flood maps benefit NFIP policyholders and communities at risk of flooding, they should pay for the mapping rather than have the cost borne by all taxpayers.

“State and local governments can also invest their own resources in updating flood maps to inform land use decisions and reduce risk,” the White House wrote.

Ultimately, Miller said, Mississippians will end up paying more or doing without many of these services.

“There will be a trickle-down effect,” he said.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton

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