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Uncertain fate for lodging tax

Citizens could have to vote if they want a proposed 2 percentlodging tax to become a reality, area lawmakers said Monday at thechamber commerce’s annual legislative breakfast.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett said the local and privatelegislation would follow a path through the Senate. However, hesaid that chamber’s local and private committee chairman hadindicated the bill would not be brought up unless it contains areferendum to allow a vote on the measure.

Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said a bill for the tax, whichwould fund chamber tourism and retiree development efforts, has notbeen introduced. Unlike other legislative measures, there is nodeadline for introducing local and private bills.

“I’m trying to meet with all sides to look at this fairly,”Hyde-Smith said following this morning’s event.

Hyde-Smith indicated the possibility of a referendum wasuncertain.

“I still think that’s got to be determined,” the senatorsaid.

Barnett said he would be working to get the legislation throughwithout a referendum provision. He had reservations about requiringa vote, which would cost approximately $30,000, on a tax that wouldgenerate around $61,000 a year.

Saying they represent the same people she does, Hyde-Smith hassaid she would give weight to aldermen and supervisor resolutionsasking for the tax.

Chandler Russ, chamber of commerce executive vice-president,said the issue is still alive, and chamber officials were notgiving up. He expressed similar comments about the significance ofthe unanimous supervisors resolution and 5-2 aldermen vote torequest the tax.

“It’s a local and private issue, and our representatives havespoken for the local citizens,” Russ said.

Local hotel association officials have voiced opposition to theproposed tax over how the generated funds would be spent. They havesaid the funds should be used to develop tourism attractions ratherthan on marketing an area where the city is currently lacking.

The lodging tax was among a number of topics touched on duringthe Monday morning breakfast meeting. Other issues included theMississippi School of the Arts and the state’s poor financialcondition, especially in relation to community college funding.

“We’ve gotten ourselves in a bind,” Barnett said. “And you knowwho did it? The legislature did it.”

Barnett said revenue collections are running about 3.9 percentahead of last year. However, the state is in a bind because ofspending plans based on projected revenue that has notmaterialized.

Hyde-Smith and Dist. 36 Sen. Lynn Posey were a little moreoptimistic. Posey said lawmakers would have to scale back, but hedid not see the state facing any real fiscal problems.

“We’re just going to have to rethink and restructure the waywe’re doing some things,” Posey said.

Hyde-Smith said projections were made during times of 9 percentannual growth, and the growth now is not at that level. Shebelieves the state will be able to weather the latest storm.

“I think we’ll be OK as long as there’s not another storm behindthis one,” she said.

Lawmakers praised community colleges for their handling of thean estimated $37-$38 million in budget cuts. Barnett offered a rayof hope in the form of some training funds related to the newNissan plant as a way of restoring some of the cuts.

“It’s looking a little bit better,” Barnett said.

Regarding the Mississippi School of the Arts, lawmakers said itis “progressing nicely.”

Hyde-Smith said she had received commitments from Senateleadership and saw no problems.

“We’ve got a lot of support for that school throughout thestate,” said Hyde-Smith, who credited director Dr. VickiBodenhammer with doing a good job of getting in started.

In some cases, the less said the better, Barnett said. He saidthe arts school was one of those cases, and he does not bring it upmuch around the capitol.

“We are on target,” Barnett said.

The school is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2002. Bids on thefirst phase of the Student Life Center are scheduled to be openedFeb. 8.

Barnett was optimistic about private funding sources for theschool. He mentioned some good prospects on the funds that will beneeded to help complete the project.

“We are going to need private funding to put the frosting on thecake,” Barnett said.