February 12, 2020 10:49:18 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi senators clashed Tuesday before passing a bill to let the state auditor see tax returns to verify the income of people enrolled in Medicaid or other public assistance programs.
Supporters said the plan is designed to ensure people are not receiving benefits if they earn too much money. But critics questioned the timing and said Mississippi is looking for waste in the wrong place.
The debate happened days after Auditor Shad White announced that the former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services and five other people had been indicted on charges tied to misspending of millions of public dollars that should have been spent to help poor people. White, a Republican, called it the largest public embezzlement case in Mississippi in at least 20 years.
"The timing is awful," said Republican Sen. Josh Harkins of Flowood, sponsor of the bill that passed Tuesday.
Harkins said he had been working with White since last month on the proposal to verify the income of people receiving Medicaid or aid from two programs administered by the Department of Human Services. One is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- the program connected to the embezzlement case. The other is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The recipients themselves would not have to provide documents, and not all recipients' tax information would be checked. Harkins said the state Department of Revenue would give the auditor access to tax returns from a sampling of people on each program.
Democratic Sen. John Horhn of Jackson said welfare fraud is more likely to come from providers or staff members of programs than from recipients.
"This is a policy that further punishes the poor, like too many of our policies in this state do," Horhn said.
Republican Sen. Angela Hill of Picayune said income verification could catch people who lie about how much money they make to receive health coverage or other benefits paid by the public.
"It's not fair nor is it right to a taxpayer of the state of Mississippi if there is one person that should not be getting these taxpayer benefits ... that can build a million-dollar house with a swimming pool at the same time that the taxpayers are paying for their children's medical care," Hill said.
Senate Bill 2257 passed the Republican-controlled Senate 34-15. All of the yes votes came from Republicans and all of the no votes from Democrats. It was held for the possibility of more Senate debate before it can move to the House for more work. Both chambers must agree on the bill before it can go to the governor.
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