Mississippi legislators gear up for 2009 session

Published 1:03 am Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers begin their 2009 session on Tuesday, and everything they do during their three months at the Capitol will be limited by a lagging economy and a tight budget.

“Adjusting state spending to the reality of state revenue will be a very big issue,” said Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who’s beginning his sixth year in office.

Legislators will debate whether to increase the cigarette excise tax, which, at 18 cents, is currently one of the lowest in the nation.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“I think we’re all in agreement that there’s going to be a cigarette, tobacco tax increase,” said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican. “So now it’s about how much and where the proceeds will go.”

Barbour has blocked attempts to increase the tobacco tax the past few years, but said several weeks ago that he wants to add 24 cents a pack for premium cigarettes and 43 cents a pack on cigarettes produced by companies that didn’t participate in the state’s 1997 settlement of a lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Some health advocates and House members say they want taxes to be $1 a pack.

Officials will consider ways to pump more money into Medicaid just to get through the current budget year, which ends June 30. Barbour is reviving one of his ideas that legislators rejected in 2008, a tax on hospitals. Mississippi had different hospital tax for several years before the federal government blocked it. Now, some lawmakers say they worry patients will have to pay more if hospitals’ expenses increase.

Legislators will debate whether to tweak state elections laws, possibly to allow “no-excuses” early voting or to require voters to show identification at the polls.

They’ll look at tightening standards in public education, possibly by removing school board members in districts that fall short in academic achievement.

Legislative leaders and the governor already say they intend to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program for the third year in a row. The complex formula designed to give each school district enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

“Unless hell goes to Texas, you know, we’re going to fully fund K-12,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi.

The formula was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years. Officials struggled to find enough money to fully fund MAEP when the year-to-year increases ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. This session, lawmakers say the increase is relatively painless — only about $60 million.