Lawmakers admit state still facing tough money times

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Lincoln County lawmakers said the state is going through somebudgetary “tough times,” but they downplayed the chances of newtaxes this year.

“I don’t think we’re going to see it,” said Dist. 53 Rep. BobbyMoak Monday during the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber ofCommerce’s Legislative Breakfast.

Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith agreed. She also dismissed theidea of a state lottery, but acknowledged that a cigarette tax wasbeing considered.

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“I just don’t think we can smoke, drink or gamble our way out ofthis,” Hyde-Smith said.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett was most vocal in support of acigarette tax increase. He has suggested an increase to 50 cents apack, a move that would generate an estimated $78-$80 million.

Barnett said Mississippi is fifth from the bottom with itscigarette tax rate. He said the median cigarette tax in the countryis 69.4 cents while Mississippi’s is 18 cents a pack.

Barnett said it had been 19 years since Mississippi increasedits cigarette tax. Since 2002, 29 states had raised theirs.

“It’s killing folks…,” Barnett said. “We must dosomething.”

With new taxes unlikely, the chances of budget cuts increase.While not offering specifics, Hyde-Smith said she was notoptimistic that education would be spared.

“There’s going to be some drastic cuts in education,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

However, the senator said the state had come through tough timesbefore. She was confident in the legislative leadership to see thestate through its current difficulties.

“Education is weighing on our hearts right now,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Moak was a little more optimistic. He did not think educationwould be funded first like last year, but he was confident thatlegislative leadership would find the necessary money.

“I’m not fearful that education’s going to be left behind,” Moaksaid.

Steering the state out of its troubles will take good managementand good decisions, Hyde-Smith said. She said she was concerned,but she also believed the state is heading in the rightdirection.

“There’s going to be better days ahead, but they’re not hereright now,” the senator said.

Lawmakers called for more efficiency in state government. Whilenot a major area, Hyde-Smith mentioned changes in state employeecell phone use as one means of tackling the problem.

“You take care of the small stuff, and the big stuff takes careof itself,” Hyde-Smith said.

Barnett and Hyde-Smith decried a Medicaid program that ismillions short in funding.

Barnett said the program has to be turned around. Hyde-Smithsuggested the possibility of recertification of Medicaid-eligiblerecipients.

“Medicaid is eating us up, and we’ve got to do something aboutit,” Barnett said.

Barnett mentioned a Texas Medicaid plan that saved $1 billion infirst year and projected to save $1.5 billion this year. He saidstate officials were looking at the Texas law to see if it could beincorporated for Mississippi.

Lawmakers also alluded to budget-saving proposals by new Gov.Haley Barbour. A Barbour proposal for state employees to pay theirinsurance premiums does not stand a chance, but lawmakers indicatedthat the employee deductible could be raised.

Barnett said Barbour wants to reduce the size of stategovernment not by firing employees, but by not replacing those injobs that expire.

“We can decrease the number of jobs in state government withoutreducing the efficiency of state government,” Barnett said.

During a question-and-answer session at the breakfast, which wassponsored by Magnolia Electric Power Association and SouthwestMississippi Electric Power Association, lawmakers were asked aboutthe possibility of a Municipal Option Sales Tax (MOST). TheMississippi Municipal League has sought optional tax as a way forcities to help fund projects in their communities.

Hyde-Smith said MOST a project-oriented tax and must be approvedby voters. She was supportive of the MOST legislation, which foryears has failed to pass the legislature.

“I don’t have any problem with local people voting on localbusiness,” Hyde-Smith said.

Barnett and Moak expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s a good program for cities,” said Moak, although he addedthat MOST may have tough time this year due to lawmakers’ no newtaxes pledge.