Lawmakers seek cigarette tax revenue for schools

Published 1:54 am Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lawmakers in the Mississippi House approved a bill on Thursday they say is a funding solution for several school districts that may go broke before the end of the fiscal year.

The measure, which passed 82-37, would use money generated from a proposed tobacco tax to restore $68 million that has been cut from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a formula used to determine how much state money school districts receive to operate.

Opponents of the bill, many of them Republicans, said the proposal is flawed because it is based on an 82-cent cigarette tax increase proposal becoming law. The state’s current excise tax on cigarettes is 18 cents.

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The House has already passed the cigarette tax bill. The Senate hasn’t debated the proposal.

The education funding bill was held for more consideration in the House.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, citing declining state revenue collections, cut agency budgets last week. The state Department of Education released data showing the 3.2 percent MAEP decrease would leave 24 districts with deficit budgets by June 30.

Like many other states, Mississippi is struggling in the national recession. The state has a $362 million rainy day fund, but Barbour has discouraged lawmakers from using more than one-fourth of the pot when budgeting for next year.

If passed, supporters say the cigarette tax increase could generate up to $70 million by June 30.

“The reality is there really is no other place to look for these funds,” said Rep. David Norquist, D-Cleveland.

Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said it’s unfair not to include public education when all other state agencies are taking budget cuts.

“Is there ever a time when we should ask education to participate in a crisis?” Formby said.

Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, argued that lawmakers were giving school districts “false hope.”

“I’ve only been here for over a year, but what’s the reality of an 82-cent cigarette tax making it through the process?” Barker said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant has said the Senate will look at the legislation.

“However, we are going to be very responsible in moving through the budget process in these tough economic times,” Bryant said.

School superintendents from across the state are searching for ways to cut costs. Lawmakers said some of the options being considered are eliminating sports programs and cutting back on travel, supplies and equipment.

The bill is House Bill 1383.