JACKSON, Mississippi — The Mississippi Ethics Commission on Friday cleared the way for six Republican state House members to vote on Medicaid issues, but the commission's ruling wasn't unanimous and one member called it "illogical."
The lawmakers sought ethics guidance because they have potential financial conflicts, either because they work for health care providers that could receive Medicaid money or because they have relatives who work for providers.
The commission voted 5-3 to allow the half dozen lawmakers to help decide three issues related to the government health insurance program for the needy — whether to approve the Medicaid budget, whether to reauthorize the program to stay in existence once the new fiscal year begins July 1 and whether to expand the program to an estimated 300,000 additional people.
The Ethics Commission specified that the six were cleared to vote against Medicaid expansion. Commissioners said the lawmakers never sought clearance to vote for expansion, but the ruling Friday said the commission "consistently advises public servants to fully recuse themselves from any matter which could result in a pecuniary benefit to their employer."
The half dozen GOP votes could be important if Republican Gov. Phil Bryant calls lawmakers into session later this month to keep Medicaid in business July 1 and beyond. Republicans hold a majority in both the House and the Senate. But if six Republicans had to abstain from voting, it's not clear whether the GOP would be able to get the minimum 62 House votes needed to adopt a Medicaid budget.
Because of a partisan dispute over whether to expand Medicaid, legislators ended their three-month regular session without setting a budget for the program or even re-authorizing it. The expansion is allowed under the federal health law that President Barack Obama signed. Republican leaders oppose expansion, while many Democrats say it would boost the economy and help the working poor.
Ethics Commission members on Friday talked about two previous, contradictory rulings. In 2005, the commission ruled that a lawmaker who's married to a public school teacher could vote on the state education budget without having a financial conflict. In 2012, the commission ruled that a lawmaker who's involved with a business that receives money from Medicaid should refrain from voting on Medicaid to avoid a conflict.
Ethics Commission member Bill Wheeler of Tupelo, who served as a Democrat in the state House from 1988 to 1995, voted Friday against clearing the six House members to vote. He said it's inconsistent to tell lawmakers it's OK to vote for the Medicaid budget but not for Medicaid expansion.
"If there's something wrong with the second dollar you received," he said, meaning expansion, "then there has to be something wrong with the first dollar you received under the normal appropriations. It's just quite illogical."
Billy Powell of Brandon, one of the five Ethics Commission members who voted for the ruling Friday, is a former chairman of the state Republican Party. He also participated in a small private dinner that Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn had at the Capitol a few weeks ago for GOP leaders.
"During the dinner with the speaker, there was no political issue ever discussed," Powell said in response to reporters' questions Friday. "We have never discussed with the speaker what I would do."
Bryant has said he thinks he can run Medicaid without legislative approval, though some legislators say it's not possible for a governor to run an agency that hasn't been funded.
The six Republican lawmakers who sought guidance from the Ethics Commission are Rep. Donnie Bell of Fulton, who does marketing for a hospice provider; Rep. Bubba Carpenter of Burnsville, a paramedic; Rep. Becky Currie of Brookhaven, a nurse; Rep. Mac Huddleston of Pontotoc, who is married to a doctor; Rep. Sam Mims of McComb, a marketing representative for a health care company; and Rep. Margaret Rogers of New Albany, whose father is a doctor.
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