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Cigarette/grocery bill dies; Barbour says tax cuts possible later

Gov. Haley Barbour defends his opposition to a bill that would’ve increased taxes on cigarettes and decreased them on groceries, and he says he’ll propose “serious tax cuts” once Mississippi’s post-Hurricane Katrina economy shows more stability.

“When I ran for governor four years ago, I said a few thousand times I’m against raising anybody’s taxes,” Barbour told reporters at the Capitol. “I’ve said it a few thousand times since I’ve been governor. I haven’t changed my position. I’m doing just what I told people I was going to do for the last several years.”

Barbour’s comments came Tuesday, the same day a Senate committee chairman killed a bill that would’ve increased the cigarette tax from 18 cents a pack to $1 and cut the 7 percent grocery tax in half.

Mississippi has the third-lowest cigarette tax and the highest state grocery tax in the nation.

A cigarette-grocery “tax swap” bill passed the House last month, but died when Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, chose not to bring it up for a vote in his committee. Tuesday was the deadline for action.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that the bill could be revived before the three-month legislative session ends in early April.

Restarting work on the bill would require approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate. That’s the same margin needed to override a governor’s veto, and lawmakers could not muster enough votes to override vetoes of two cigarette/grocery tax bills in 2006.

Hurricane Katrina shook Mississippi’s economy when it roared ashore in August 2005. Barbour has said repeatedly that the state still faces too much financial uncertainty to make major changes in the tax structure.

Robertson on Monday said Barbour asked him to kill the cigarette/grocery tax bill this session because the governor plans to propose a tax cut this fall.

Asked Tuesday if Robertson’s statement was accurate, Barbour said: “When I’m confident we know what our revenue situation is, I intend to propose major tax reform and tax relief. But I think it would be irresponsible to do that when we don’t have a good grasp of the stability of our financial system.”

The governor, who is running for re-election this year, also said: “I doubt that by this fall the revenue picture will be certain enough to propose major changes. But I am very interested in serious tax cuts and tax reform once we know where we really stand financially as a state.”

Barbour would not specify how many months or years of financial data he wants to study before proposing changes.

Most lawmakers are seeking re-election this year, and health advocates had banked on voters’ pressure to tilt the debate in favor of a grocery tax cut. The biggest change came from Robertson, who supported the bill last year because it was being pushed by Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who made him chairman of the powerful committee. Tuck is term-limited and can’t seek re-election this year. Robertson acknowledged that Tuck’s lame-duck status has influenced him to switch and side with Barbour on the issue this year.

Critics of the governor have pointed to Barbour’s previous work as a high-profile Washington lobbyist whose client list included tobacco companies.

On Tuesday, after Robertson had made it clear he was going to sit on the cigarette-grocery tax bill until it died, a group of about a dozen health advocates and about 15 lawmakers held a news conference in the Capitol rotunda.

Over the past several years, rallies for education and other issues have attracted large, raucous crowds that have turned the Mississippi Capitol rotunda into a sort of theater in the round, with hundreds of people cheering and dozens of spectators leaning over the third- and fourth-floor balconies to watch action on the second floor.

During the latest news conference, only a few people watched from the balconies, and lobbyists milling about in the rotunda barely interrupted their own conversations to see what was happening.

Pam Shaw of the Children’s Defense Fund bristled at a question about why health advocates have not taken a higher-profile role in pushing for the cigarette/grocery tax bill this year.

“We’ve been doing this for four years, for four years, throughout this state,” she said to a smattering of applause from the small group gathered on the marble steps behind her. “We have been in town hall meetings across this state, we have been in districts, we have had press conferences. We have had rallies. This is not the first time we have shown up at the Capitol. We are here today because the rules say this is the day that it can die in the Senate Finance Committee and we were not going to allow it to die a quiet death. We want to shed light on this system.”

The bill is House Bill 247.