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Dems ratchet up pressure for vote on cigarette-grocery tax bill

Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor on Thursday criticized Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and one of his GOP allies for blocking action on a bill to increase taxes on cigarettes and decrease them on groceries.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, said in response that he’s “99.9 and a half percent” certain he will not bring the bill up before next Tuesday’s deadline. That would kill it.

Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, who’s running for lieutenant governor, spoke Thursday to about 125 people who were at the Capitol for AARP, a retirees’ group that has been lobbying for the “tax swap” bill.

Franks took verbal jabs at Robertson, referring to a contract Robertson was awarded last year by the Mississippi Development Authority. Robertson is an attorney, and he got the contract to finalize Hurricane Katrina homeowners’ recovery grants.

“He got a $1.2 million contract from MDA that’s headed by Gov. Barbour. So he’s probably going to do what Gov. Barbour tells him to do,” Franks told the retirees, winning applause.

Robertson and MDA have said repeatedly that Robertson got the contract in a competitive bid process. The state Ethics Commission said it found no conflict with Robertson getting the contract, which involves federal money.

Asked later Thursday if he wanted to respond to Franks’ statements, Robertson said: “I consider who said it and I won’t respond.”

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

A bill that passed the House last month would cut the grocery tax in half and increase the cigarette tax to $1 a pack.

Barbour has said repeatedly that he opposes the bill because he doesn’t want to raise anybody’s taxes.

During a news conference on the Capitol steps Thursday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Arthur Eaves Jr. talked about Barbour’s past as a Washington lobbyist for tobacco companies.

“This bill is being held hostage this day by three folks,” Eaves said. “The first one is RJ Reynolds, and in his pocket is Mr. Haley Barbour. And in Haley Barbour’s pocket is … Mr. Tommy Robertson.”

Barbour vetoed two cigarette and grocery tax bills in 2006, and lawmakers were unable to muster the two-thirds majority to override either veto.

This is an election year, and health advocates who want a higher cigarette tax say they hope that will change the dynamics at the Capitol and push one of the bills through with veto-proof margins.

The bill is House Bill 247.