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Miss. cigarette-grocery tax bill appears stalled, maybe for the year

Prospects appear very dim that Mississippi will enact a law this year to cut the 7 percent grocery tax in half and increase the cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1 a pack.

A key legislator — Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point — says he’s “99.9 percent sure” he’ll kill bills that contain the tax swap.

“I did not see it becoming law this year, and I did not want to go through a bloody fight on the (Senate) floor,” Robertson said.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, called Robertson’s decision to sit on the bills without allowing a debate in the full Senate a “travesty.”

“I do not think this is going to sit well with the citizens of this state who are paying the highest grocery tax in America,” McCoy said.

Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who appointed Robertson to the high-profile chairmanship more than seven years ago, said she’s still urging him to let his 26-member committee, and then the full 52-member Senate, debate the plan that she says would give people financial relief. Tuck said she believes most Mississippians support the plan.

“It is the responsible thing to do to let the members of the Senate debate this issue on the floor,” Tuck said.

The legislative session is scheduled to end April 1, and election-year politics are shaping the debate on the tax swap.

Tuck, a Republican, is term limited and can’t run again this year. Robertson acknowledged last week that Tuck’s lame-duck status caused him to switch from supporting similar tax-swap bills in 2006 to opposing them this year. He said he supported the bills, and allowed debate on them, last year because that’s what Tuck wanted.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed both bills last year and said he still opposes a change in the tax structure as the state continues its recovery from Hurricane Katrina. He says frequently: “I’m against raising anybody’s taxes.”

Barbour is seeking a second term, and he has millions of dollars in his campaign fund.

Robertson is running for a new term, and if he’s re-elected he’ll have to work under Barbour.

Mississippi has the highest state grocery tax in the nation and the third-lowest cigarette tax. Arkansas’ new Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, signed a law last week to cut that state’s 6 percent grocery tax in half on July 1.

Charles L. Brown, an agriculture teacher at Rosa Fort High School in Tunica, was at the Mississippi Capitol on Tuesday and said he’d like to see a reduction in this state’s grocery tax. Brown, 60, estimated that he and his wife, Martha, spend about $75 a week on groceries.

“I know we could use a lower grocery tax. No doubt about it,” Brown said.

There are two cigarette-grocery tax bills still alive — one that came from the House and one that came from the Senate.

The Senate bill appears likely to die under a Wednesday deadline because Robertson did not bring it through the Finance Committee.

The House passed its own bill 91-27 last week, and that bill has been sent to Robertson’s committee. The Senate has a March 13 deadline to consider the House plan.

Passing a tax bill takes a three-fifths majority in each chamber. That’s 32 votes if all 52 senators are participating and 74 votes if all 122 House members take part; there’s currently one vacancy in the House, putting the three-fifths margin at 73 votes.

Overriding a governor’s veto takes a few more votes to reach a two-thirds majority. That’s 35 votes in the full Senate and 82 votes in a 122-member House or 81 votes if one seat is still vacant.

Robertson said by his count, there are 21 senators who would vote against the tax swap plans, just enough to kill the bills.

“Instead of putting the Senate through this fight, I decided to take the heat,” Robertson said.

The bills are Senate Bill 3098 and House Bill 247.