UPDATE – Miss. lawmakers end 1st part of their ’09 session

Published 4:56 pm Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers ended the first part of their 2009 session Wednesday and left the Capitol knowing they’ll return in just a few weeks to tackle their biggest duty: Writing a state budget.

Had they stuck to their original schedule, legislators would be spending the next couple of days wrapping up all the business of their three-month gathering, including a plan to pay for state government for the year that begins July 1.

“Well, it is what it is,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said Wednesday, responding to a question about the unusual leave-and-return arrangement that’s been in the works for several days.

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In the part of the session that just ended, legislators considered general changes to state laws. Their duties when they return will be almost exclusively about setting a few taxes and deciding how to spend money.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and legislative leaders from both parties delayed the budget-writing process to give themselves — and their staff of attorneys, budget professionals and policy analysts — more time to understand how the federal economic stimulus package will affect Mississippi government.

McCoy and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant will decide when to call legislators back. The most likely dates are in early May or early June.

With unemployment climbing and state revenues declining, money minders say they’ll have a tough time deciding how to divvy up state tax dollars to pay for schools, roads, prisons and other services.

A half dozen lawmakers also are still deep into tough negotiations about a proposal to increase the cigarette tax as a way to generate money for the budget. It’s unclear when they’ll meet again.

Also still pending is Barbour’s plan to enact a hospital tax to help pay for Medicaid, the state health program for the needy.

Mississippi’s cigarette excise tax of 18 cents a pack is the third-lowest in the nation.

The House started this session pushing to set the tax at $1 a pack, and the Senate started at 49 cents.

Over the past couple of weeks, House negotiators have lowered their proposals to 90 cents, then 80, then 75. The Senate has gone up to 55 cents, then 60, then 64.

On Wednesday, senators made a new offer just before lawmakers left the Capitol: 64 cents per pack on premium brands and 84 cents per pack on off-brand cigarettes from companies that didn’t participate in the massive 1997 settlement of Mississippi’s lawsuit against tobacco companies.

The average cigarette tax for the surrounding four states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama is 64 cents. The federal cigarette tax also increased dramatically on Wednesday, from 39 cents a pack to $1.01, making some Mississippi lawmakers more hesitant to increase the state tax.

The latest Senate offer also would link Mississippi’s future cigarette tax to the surrounding states’ average. As that average increases, so would Mississippi’s tax.

While the House didn’t directly reject the new Senate plan, the chamber’s lead negotiator said part of it makes no sense.

“We set our tax policy — this is what it’s going to be and this is what it should be,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg. “It should not be set on what Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas (do). I mean, that’s ludicrous.”

Senate leaders want to use revenue from an increased cigarette tax to help head off a possible increase in the cost of car tags. Legislators in the mid-1990s set up a complicated fund that collects part of the tax from car and truck sales and routes the money into a fund that provides discounts for annual renewal of license plates. Vehicle sales are lagging, and that fund is running short of money.

“We’ve got to find some money for car tags,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said Wednesday. “And we need people to quit smoking. This is the solution.”

The bill is House Bill 364.