Miss. lawmakers restart cigarette tax negotiations

Published 11:40 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers have revived a bill that would increase one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation, but it’s unclear whether a second round of talks will produce a compromise.

The original bill died under a deadline last week when the House and Senate couldn’t agree on how much to increase the excise tax, now at 18 cents a pack.

On Monday, more than two-thirds of the House and Senate voted to revive the cigarette bill by suspending the deadlines for work on the issue.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Legislators are feeling pressure to increase the tax to generate more money for the anemic state budget.

They’re also trying to head off a politically risky scenario of allowing dramatic increases in the price of car tags — a development that would anger motorists who now pay anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred dollars to renew the license plates each year. Senate leaders see the cigarette tax as a way to keep tag prices from rising.

“We’re going to do everything we can,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.

When talks broke off last week, the House had offered to set the cigarette tax at 80 cents a pack and the Senate had offered 60 cents.

On Monday, the Senate increased its offer to 64 cents a pack. That’s the average of the cigarette taxes in the four surrounding states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama.

Kirby said, however, that he doesn’t think there’s enough support in the Senate to set the tax at 64 cents. Changing a tax takes a three-fifths majority, or at least 32 votes if all 52 senators participate.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said a substantially higher cigarette tax could deter some people from smoking.

“It sounds simple to say 64 cents versus 80 cents. But between those two, you are talking about millions of dollars and certainly thousands of people not smoking,” said Watson, D-Hattiesburg. “How do you find that magic number?”

Mississippi’s cigarette excise tax has not changed since 1985. It’s now the third-lowest state tax in the nation, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a national anti-smoking group based in Washington.

Legislators are trying to finish most of their work for the 2009 session this week. They’re planning to take a break for several weeks, then return to the Capitol in early May or early June to finish writing a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Lawmakers are taking time off to give themselves more time to evaluate how the federal stimulus package might affect Mississippi.

With the regular deadlines suspended on the cigarette tax bill, legislators could extend negotiations on the issue until they return to the Capitol in May or June.

The resolution is Senate Concurrent Resolution 684. The bill is House Bill 364.