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Lawmakers back tax bill veto override

All three Lincoln County lawmakers said they would vote tooverride Gov. Haley Barbour’s veto of a grocery-cigarette tax billshould the legislation be brought back up for a vote.

The grocery-cigarette tax bill, education and gaming dominatedquestions during this morning’s Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamberof Commerce legislative breakfast.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith opened the discussion with anupdate on legislative activity. She said the session has beenfast-paced.

“We’ve had an active legislative session. It started off with abang,” the senator said, referring to the quick passage of a billto raise cigarette taxes while phasing out the sales tax ongroceries.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Haley Barbour.

On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee voted 14-10 to recommendthe Senate override the veto. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who crafted thetax plan, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson,R-Moss Point, have until the end of the session to bring the billback up for a vote.

While expressing support for an override, Hyde-Smith did notoffer a timetable for when an override vote might happen.

District 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett and District 52 Rep. Bobby Moakare looking forward to seeing the bill if it emerges in the House.A two-thirds vote for an override in the Senate would have tohappen before the House could take up the issue.

Barnett said he has long supported an increase in the cigarettetax because “we’re losing people every day to the effects oftobacco.”

Municipal officials, who worry their budgets may be adverselyaffected by the loss of the grocery tax, should not be overlyconcerned, he said. Aside from what may be done with the originalbill, the House has passed a separate bill that would create adiversion fund to offset the loss of the grocery tax, Barnettsaid.

“We’re going to take care of the municipalities,” Barnettsaid.

Moak repeated earlier statements that the tax changes should notbe seen as a tax shift, but as a change in tax policy.

The poor would not be helped by the elimination of the grocerytax because they use non-taxable food stamps. Instead, Moak said,it removes a burden from middle-income families.

At the same time, Moak said, it would boost the economy bygiving Mississippians more disposable income.

“I feel funny standing up here as a Democrat talking abouttrickle down economics, but it does work,” said Moak, promptingchuckles from the audience.

Education was also a hot topic. Hyde-Smith said presentprojections indicate a $60 million increase in the educationbudget.

When asked about an increase for higher education, where thebudget has been cut or stalled for the past six years, she saidincreasing those funds was one of her priorities this session. Shepraised college leaders for their dedication and perseveranceduring the last few years.

“They have tightened their belts until they’ve nearly cutthemselves in half,” Hyde-Smith said.

Moak, chairman of the House Gaming Committee, said the gamingindustry has rebounded very strongly from the devastation on theGulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. Three of the major casinosreopened in December, and since that time have recorded a 33percent increase in gaming, at temporary locations, from the sametime period last year, he said.

Despite the hurricane, Moak said, Mississippi retained its holdas the third-largest gaming state in the nation.

“We’re about to knock New Jersey out,” he said. “We’re goingafter Vegas.”

When asked why the state does not increase the gambling tax toraise more money instead of employing the complex grocery andcigarette tax changes, Moak said the state has looked upon thegaming industry as a business model and not a tax model.

The state could increase taxes, Moak said, but it would driveoff many casinos and limit both the direct and indirect employmentbenefits of a large gaming industry.

As an example, Moak said, Harrah’s Casino is the largest singleemployer in the state and, as a group, casino employment farexceeds any other industry. He added that the state was doing quitewell with the $5 billion generated by the gaming industry.