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Senate to try to revive efforts on grocery/cigarette tax swap

The Mississippi Senate on Tuesday will consider reviving one of the biggest issues of the 2007 legislative session — a plan to slash taxes on groceries and increase taxes on cigarettes.

Some lawmakers say the matter could come down a few votes.

A so-called “tax swap” bill died last week after a legislative deadline passed and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson refused to let the measure out of his committee.

Sen. Travis Little, R-Corinth, announced on the Senate floor Monday that he will ask for a suspension of legislative rules Tuesday to file an identical proposal.

Little said that a new tax swap bill could be introduced with two-thirds approval of a resolution in the House and Senate. That’s the same margin that would be needed to override an expected veto by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the vote will be close.

“If you’re a good senator, you’d better be a very good vote counter. At this point, it’s a close margin. Within two or three votes,” Nunnelee said. “This vote … is not a vote on the merits of the bill, it’s a vote on whether the bill should be debated in this great legislative body.”

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said Monday that “the governor’s position has been pretty consistent for the last four years regarding this risky tax scheme.”

Barbour vetoed two similar measures last year, and lawmakers couldn’t muster enough support for an override.

Mississippi has the highest state grocery tax in the nation, at 7 percent. It also has the third-lowest cigarette excise tax, at 18 cents a pack. The bill would cut the grocery tax in half and increase the cigarette tax to one dollar a pack.

Barbour says he’s against raising anybody’s taxes and that it would be unwise to change the state’s tax structure while Mississippi still faces economic uncertainty from Hurricane Katrina. Critics say Barbour is trying to help the tobacco companies that used to be his clients when he was a Washington lobbyist.

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, was cautiously optimistic about the development in the Senate.

“I certainly hope they muster up more support than they have in the past,” Holland said. “It won’t be a problem in the House.”

Kimberly Hughes, government relations director for the American Cancer Society in Mississippi, said she’s encouraged that legislators are making an attempt to revive the tax bill.

“The saying is true: It’s not over ’til it’s over,” Hughes said Monday at the Capitol.

“We have not stopped working with our grass-roots organization, getting them to call their senators to support this,” Hughes said.

The resolution is Senate Concurrent Resolution 621.