Health groups continue push for Miss. tobacco tax

Published 11:04 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Health advocates are holding out hope that Mississippi lawmakers will increase the cigarette tax for the first time in a generation.

“We’re encouraged that they’re meeting and they’re talking about an amount,” Katherine Bryant, public advocacy director for the American Heart Association, said Tuesday at the Capitol.

Wednesday night is the deadline for House and Senate negotiators to agree on a compromise plan to increase the cigarette excise tax. The proposal would then go to both chambers for a vote.

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The current rate of 18 cents a pack is the third-lowest rate in the nation.

House and Senate negotiators met Monday and rejected each other’s latest proposals. They didn’t meet Tuesday, but House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg said he’s optimistic about crafting a compromise on time.

Mississippi lawmakers, meanwhile, have started the process of suspending other deadlines to give themselves more time to write a budget for the year that begins July 1.

Under a resolution that passed the House on Tuesday, legislators would finish their work on general changes to state law by late this month or early next month, as scheduled. Then, they’d take a few weeks off and return to the Capitol in either early May or early June to finish a state spending plan.

The Senate is expected to vote later this week on changing the budget deadline.

The timeline remains the same for the cigarette tax and other bills that could affect revenues.

The House on Monday proposed setting the rate at 90 cents a pack. That’s down from the only other House position of $1 a pack.

Senators rejected the 90 cents and countered with an offer of 60 cents a pack. That’s up from the Senate’s original position of 49 cents and first negotiating offer of 55 cents.

Roy Mitchell, director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, said a tax close to $1 a pack will discourage young people from smoking.

“The Senate is still operating in a vacuum and not talking about health benefits,” Mitchell said Tuesday.

The resolution is House Concurrent Resolution 96.