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Prospects uncertain for another attempt at reviving tax swap

Mississippi lawmakers could make another attempt to revive a cigarette and grocery “tax swap,” but even the proposal’s biggest supporter says she’s not sure that will happen.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, whose backing for the plan has put her at odds with Gov. Haley Barbour, a fellow Republican.

With just a week and a half left in their three-month session, lawmakers still need to complete a $5 billion state budget and compromise on dozens of other bills.

A proposal to increase the cigarette excise tax from 18 cents to $1 a pack and to cut the 7 percent grocery tax in half has been one of the most discussed ideas this session — at least outside the Capitol. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, has killed two bills by not allowing debate in his committee.

On Tuesday, the Senate tried and failed to revive the issue. The chamber voted 31-20 for a for a resolution that would have allowed the filing of a new bill identical to the ones that Robertson killed. The resolution needed 34 votes for a two-thirds majority.

Mississippi has the highest state grocery tax and the third-lowest cigarette excise tax in the nation. Barbour vetoed two cigarette-grocery tax swap bills last year, and lawmakers couldn’t muster the two-thirds majority needed to override.

Barbour says the time is not right to reduce the grocery tax because Mississippi still faces too much economic uncertainty in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina. On the cigarette portion, he says he opposes raising anybody’s taxes.

After a House-approved tax swap bill died in Robertson’s committee last week, Barbour said he’ll propose “serious tax cuts” once the state’s post-Hurricane Katrina economy shows more stability, but the governor didn’t say when that will be.

Barbour said Tuesday that the Senate’s vote not to revive the cigarette-grocery tax issue is “consistent with what’s been going on for the last year. So I don’t know why there would be any surprises.”

Robertson said if the issue had been revived and a new bill had been sent to his committee, “I would’ve brought it up for a vote.”

Robertson also said to reporters: “I told y’all back when you first questioned me on this, there was not the votes for this to become law. Obviously, things have not changed since last year.”

Critics point to Barbour’s background as a Washington lobbyist whose client list included tobacco companies.

“Haley doesn’t care about Mississippians and the working men and women of this state,” Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Wayne Dowdy said in a news release. “If he did, he would have backed cutting the tax on groceries instead of protecting the interests of big tobacco companies — like he did when he was a Washington lobbyist.”

Tuck said the tax swap has support from Republicans and Democrats. She said she was disappointed the resolution for a new bill failed, but she thought it was important for senators to stake out their positions on the issue.

“I thought it was important that the members of the Senate had a chance to say either they support the idea or they don’t,” Tuck said. “So the Senate has spoken. It’s disappointing because I believe this is good public policy. I wanted to see it become law.”

Barbour and most lawmakers are seeking re-election this year. Tuck is term-limited and could not run again.

Eight Republicans and 23 Democrats voted to revive the tax issue, while 18 Republicans and two Democrats voted against it. One Republican was absent. Two senators representing Pearl River County voted for the resolution and one voted against it. For it were Ezell Lee and Ed Morgan. Sid Albritton voted against it.

The resolution is Senate Concurrent Resolution 621.