Senator uncertain on tax bill; says he doesn’t want ‘bloody fight’

Published 7:42 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A key lawmaker says he’ll bring a cigarette and grocery tax bill up for debate only if there are enough votes to push it into law over a likely veto by Gov. Haley Barbour.

“I’m not going to have a bloody fight out there for the sake of having a fight to help the Democratic Party or to help the Republican Party take out certain people on key issues,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, said Monday. “If there is a reasonable chance it will become law, that will affect my judgment.”

Next week is the deadline for state House and Senate committees to consider the first round of tax and budget bills for the election-year legislative session.

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Mississippi now has the highest state grocery tax in the nation at 7 percent and the third-lowest cigarette tax at 18 cents a pack.

Barbour, a Republican, has said repeatedly that he’s against raising any taxes. In launching his re-election campaign Monday, the governor said Mississippi still faces too much economic uncertainty in its Hurricane Katrina recovery and he doesn’t want to change the tax structure now.

A bill pending in Robertson’s committee would cut the grocery tax in half July 1 and would increase the cigarette tax to 80 cents a pack July 1 and to $1 a pack a year later.

It mirrors the second of two cigarette/grocery tax bills Barbour vetoed in 2006. The first bill would have increased the cigarette tax while eliminating the grocery tax over several years. Lawmakers were unable to muster the two-thirds majorities in each chamber to override either of those vetoes.

Robertson was a sponsor of the “tax swap” bills last year and helped guide them through the Senate. The bills were being pushed last year, as they are this year, by Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who appointed Robertson to the powerful chairmanship of the Finance Committee.

Political dynamics have changed in the past year. Tuck can’t seek re-election this year because of term limits. This past summer, she announced she would not run for any office in 2007.

Robertson spoke Monday at a luncheon sponsored by the Capitol press corps and Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Responding to a question after the speech, Robertson acknowledged that Tuck’s diminished political power influenced his change of position on the tax bill.

“It does have a role in it. I don’t know how much,” Robertson said. “But I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that it does not affect the position. I think that when you’re chairman of a major committee, and obviously Finance is a major committee on the Senate side, that you do some things when you’re in a leadership position that you might not normally do if you weren’t in that position.”

Asked to clarify, he said he was supporting the bill last year because Tuck wanted him to.

Barbour, who appeared at a campaign news conference shortly after Robertson spoke at the press luncheon, said: “In a couple of years when the tax situation after Katrina has stabilized, I hope to be able to propose a large tax cut myself. But I think to do so today would be irresponsible. We need to know what our financial future is with more certainty.”

Barbour would not specify what kind of tax cut he might propose.

Robertson said cutting income taxes might be a way to help the middle class.

The bill is Senate Bill 3098.