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Lawmakers to begin 2009 session Tuesday

The Mississippi Legislature is virtually united behind aforthcoming law that will increase taxes on cigarettes, but exactlyhow much that tax should be and into which state fund it should bedeposited will be hotly debated when the 2009 regular sessionbegins Tuesday, local legislators said.

The three representatives and one senator who represent Lincolnand surrounding counties said the cigarette tax – which grew from aDemocratic, House-based movement and spread to the Senate too latefor passage in 2008 – is definitely coming this year, but severaloptions exist for its implementation.

Some lawmakers want all the revenue from the forthcoming law tobe earmarked for the state’s ailing Medicaid program, which stillfaces a funding shortfall of more than $90 million, while otherswant at least part of the proceeds deposited in the state’s generalfund. Early predictions for the price of such a tax range from justabove 30 cents to $1.

“Not very many Republicans really agree on this topic, so it’sgoing to be a pretty big deal,” said District 92 Rep. Becky Currie,R-Brookhaven. “I think [the tax] needs to go to Medicaid. Ourhospitals are not doing well, and we’ve got to make sure we havehealth care in this state.”

Of the several price increments being prepared for the session,Currie said she is most comfortable with a 50-cent increase – afigure large enough to be effective and small enough to allowcompromise in government, she said.

She opposes depositing the money in the state’s generalfund.

“If the money goes into the general fund, it’ll go towardbuilding a road in North Mississippi or somewhere where we won’teven know where the money is,” she said.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, also supportsearmarking the forthcoming cigarette tax revenues for Medicaid. Shesaid the leading argument against that course of action – thathigher taxes would result in less smoking and, therefore, asteadily decreasing source of revenue – would take care ofitself.

“If you have the issue of people smoking less, then the healthcare needs should also lessen,” Hyde-Smith predicted. “The price -that’s when the poker game comes in. I definitely feel like 50cents would not be too much. For $1, we’ll have to see who’sholding the aces.”

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, wants the maximumrevenue possible from a cigarette tax, and he wants it all to gotoward Medicaid.

“A minimum of $1 per pack would make me happy, but I couldprobably swallow real hard and vote for an additional 50 cents perpack,” he said. “And I certainly think this should be earmarked forMedicaid. Medicaid spends more than a quarter of a billion per yearon treatment of tobacco related illnesses.”

Evans said he would protest the introduction of any cigarettetax legislation that included a tax total of less than 50 cents perpack.

“If it comes to that, there’ll be one guy in the House who votesagainst it, and that will be me,” he said. “We left about $200million on the table last year when we didn’t tax it the way the(House) Medicaid committee wanted to.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, is one of manylawmakers who wish to see the new tax divvied up among needygovernment functions. He said some of the tax revenue should go toMedicaid, but he opposes the idea of earmarking the entire sum.

“Since we have so many needs, I wouldn’t mind seeing a portionof it dedicated to the Medicaid program, but I’m not sure all of itneeds to go there,” Moak said. “There are other problems in thebudget, too. We’re going to have so many shortfalls in other areasthat we can’t leave those hanging, either.”

Aside from the continuation of last year’s Medicaid fundingdebates, several other familiar issues will resurface in the comingsession. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant last week released his Common SenseLegislative Agenda, a list of issues he intends to draftlegislation for in the Senate.

Bryant’s list includes reoccurring and politically hot issueslike voter ID, continued immigration reform, full funding for theMississippi Adequate Education Program and possible tax cuts tospur the economy.

Each local legislator also has his or her own special issue.Currie and Evans, though rarely in the same boat politically, saidshoring up Medicaid weighs most heavily on their hearts. Hyde-Smithplans to introduce legislation to continue her fight forlandowners’ rights in the battle against the misuse of eminentdomain, and Moak hopes to spur his comrades into creating atax-free weekend for school supplies and possibly an educationdeduction on tax returns for families with school-age children.

If last year’s session is any indicator of things to come,partisan support could be the determining factor of any piece oflegislation’s passing, as the Democratically-controlled Houseshould be able to defeat any potential laws passed over from theRepublican-led Senate and executive branch.

“When you’ve got a governor who has worked as well as (Gov.Haley Barbour) in getting the Senate in line, it’s difficult forthe other chamber to do anything except hold the line,” Moak said.”If the Senate blindly follows the governor again this year, Ithink you’ll still see the House emerge as the body that willattempt to set policy.”