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Barbour: Everybody should pay ‘fair share’ in tax system

Gov. Haley Barbour told members of his tax study group Monday that he wants them to focus on policies that favor economic growth and job creation.

The group of about 30 business people, state and local officials and financial professionals met for the first time in Jackson.

They will spend the next several months examining the state, local and federal tax structures. By the end of August, the group will recommend changes in state taxes.

The Legislature would have to approve any adjustments in the tax structure, but Barbour said he doesn’t yet know whether he’ll call lawmakers into special session this fall. Only a governor can call a special session and he tells lawmakers what they may consider. That generally gives him more control over issues in special sessions than in regular sessions.

Barbour, a Republican, was elected in November to his second term. His Democratic challenger and others sharply criticized him for blocking bills in 2006 and 2007 that would’ve increased the tax on cigarettes and decreased the tax on groceries.

The governor said Monday that some taxes might need to be increased but he wants to see a net decrease in what Mississippians pay. He said a minority of people are now paying a majority of taxes.

“To me, a system that is fair means that everybody pays their fair share,” Barbour said.

Critics say the study group appointed by Barbour is tilted toward business interests. Among those on the group are the directors of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Mississippi Economic Council.

In a brief interview session with reporters during a break in the study group’s meeting, Barbour responded that the study group is “tilted toward taxpayers.”

The governor’s staff had notified journalists about Monday’s meeting of the tax study group, but one of the governor’s employees told some other people who wanted to attend the meeting in the Woolfolk state office building that the session was closed to the public.

After reporters questioned the governor’s staff about why they had turned potential spectators away, two staff members ran after the people who had been told to leave to tell them they could attend the meeting, after all. The staffers also made cell phone calls to some who had left after being turned away.

Asked about whether the meeting was open to the public, Barbour told reporters that there might not have been enough space in the conference room. There were about 15 seats for spectators, and there was plenty of room for dozens of people to stand.

“As you can see, there’s no place to sit,” Barbour said. “And so when people started arriving, nobody knew how many there would be.”

Barbour said meetings of the tax study group will be open in the future.

Among those initially turned away were Pamela Shaw with the Children’s Defense Fund and Ed Sivak with the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. Both have called for reductions in taxes they consider regressive, including some forms of sales taxes.

State Tax Commission officials said Monday that Mississippi collects about 43 percent of its revenue from sales taxes.

Shaw said she was grateful the governor’s staff eventually opened the meeting to the public but said it should have been open all along. She said the study group needs to hear “information that would balance out” what they’ll be getting from business groups.

“Race, gender, class, politics — (it’s) just not a very diverse group of folks,” Shaw said of the study group.

The 36-member group has two white women, one black woman and six black men; the rest are white men. It includes certified public accountants, some wealthy business people and the director of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. It does not include any representatives of labor groups or advocates for the poor.