Barbour to outline agenda to Miss. Legislature

Published 11:56 pm Monday, January 12, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers will be busy the next several days with the governor’s State of the State address, a briefing about the state economy and, barring a last-minute change of plans, a debate about a cigarette tax increase.

This is the second week of a three-month session, and most of the big issues should be outlined by Wednesday. That’s the deadline for members of the House and Senate to ask staff attorneys to draft general bills and constitutional amendments.

Democrats and Republicans say they want to hear detailed plans, not just generalities, from Republican Gov. Haley Barbour during the State of the State address. He’s scheduled to appear in the House chamber at 6 p.m. Tuesday, and the speech will be carried live on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television and radio.

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Rep. Michael Janus, R-Biloxi, said he hopes the governor will give a frank assessment of the state’s financial condition during the national recession.

“Let’s have some specifics. Let’s have some recommendations of how we’re going to continue to fund state government,” Janus said.

Barbour had to cut $42 million from the state’s $5 billion budget in November because of anemic tax collections, but he exempted several programs from the cuts, including public schools and Medicaid.

The governor said he was still writing his State of the State late last week, and he wouldn’t reveal what he plans to discuss.

Barbour told a business group that all state programs are at risk of losing money when he makes a second round of budget cuts in the coming week. He said the state Department of Finance and Administration is projecting Mississippi revenues will fall $175 million to $310 million short before the budget year ends June 30. However, Barbour hasn’t said how much he’ll cut this week.

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, said he wants to hear details about the governor’s plans for balancing the budget. Clark said he’s particularly interested in ensuring health and education receive enough money.

“In the recession that we’re in, people have to have Medicaid, health care, more than ever,” Clark said.

Barbour told an audience of more than 1,000 at a Mississippi Economic Council meeting last week that he wants to protect job-training programs so people can learn marketable new skills if they’re laid off.

“We’re going to have some serious issues about how to keep our economy as strong and healthy as it can be during the downturn so that we stay poised to be the first out of the gate when the economy turns up,” Barbour said. “We’ve got to keep some steam in the kettle.”

Barbour also criticized a vote in the Democratic-controlled House to restore about $17 million to universities and community colleges — a move intended to erase the higher-education budget cuts from November by taking money out of the $362 million rainy day fund.

Barbour said it would be irresponsible to spend more than one-fourth of the rainy day fund this year because he believes the recession will be long and difficult.

Rep. Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said the legislative session could become contentious if lawmakers fight with the governor over the budget.

“I know his job is tough. Ours is tough,” Malone said. “Everybody’s going to be mad at everybody before it’s over.”

Several experts, including the state Treasurer Tate Reeves, are scheduled to give legislators a briefing about the economy on Thursday.

Debate on the cigarette tax increase is a probability, but not a certainty. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said he expects action sometime during the week and he believes there are enough votes to pass the bill. Doing so takes a three-fifths majority, or at least 74 votes if all 122 House members are present.

For years, Mississippi has had one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation, at 18 cents a pack. The House bill would add 82 cents, to set the excise tax at $1 a pack.

Many anti-smoking groups wanted to add $1 to the cigarette tax, to take the rate to $1.18 a pack. Many also wanted lawmakers to designate any new revenue to health programs, but the House bill would put the money into the general state budget.

Roy Mitchell, director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, said he and several other health lobbyists believe the House proposal is reasonable.

“It will ultimately reduce smoking and especially reduce first-time smokers who are kids,” Mitchell said.