Many cigarette tax bill questions yet to be answered

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 12, 2009

Local lawmakers said the Mississippi Legislature’s first attemptat raising the state’s 18-cent cigarette tax to $1 per pack is morea showing of good intentions than a law-ready measure at thispoint.

They expect the first piece of legislation on the issue willlikely be amended beyond recognition before Republicans, Democratsand the governor find a happy medium. The bill, House Bill 364, hasbeen sent to the House Ways and Means Committee.

But the bill’s stipulation for $1 per pack taxes on cigarettesis too high for some legislators and too low for others. Also, thebill did not attempt to answer the difficult question of where thetax revenues will be deposited – into Medicaid or the generalfund.

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“It’s just a position to begin the negotiation process,”District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, a member of thecommittee. “It appears to me at this early stage that we won’t havea dollar cigarette tax, but neither will we have a 24-cent tax.It’s just a policy position to being the process.”

Moak said House Democrats would support the $1 tax, whileRepublicans in that chamber are predicted to shoot for a lowernumber by amending HB 364 or introducing another, similar bill. Hesaid the debates over where the new revenues should be depositedwould not begin until a price is agreed upon.

Moak was one of 73 representatives who voted Friday to suspendHouse rules to allow the bill to be acted upon immediately; thevote failed to reach the necessary 80 “yeas.” Moak believes thebill will ultimately pass through to the Senate despite thearguments brewing over its design.

“I think it will ultimately pass, then the Senate will amend itto a lower number,” he said.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, doesn’t believe HB364 will pass the House, and wouldn’t pass the Senate if it were tomake it that far. She is one of many Republican lawmakerssupporting a 60-cent per pack increase, and wants to earmark thetax revenue for Medicaid, even though much of her party supportssending it to the general fund.

Even though HB 364 seems to be totally against Currie’s wishes,she still plans to support it.

“I will vote for whatever comes up in the House so it can moveon to the Senate,” she said. “Whatever happens, it’s going to beamended by the time it gets to conference. As far as I’m concerned,we need to go ahead and get something going so the governor cansign it into law. We left a lot of money on the table by not doingthis last session.”

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, is likely to supportHB 364 as well, but he would like to pump the bill up considerablywhen it is ready for amendment.

Evans prefers to make the tax increase an even dollar, bringingthe total to $1.18 per pack. Also, he wants to expand thelegislation into a traditional “sin tax” bill that would includeall forms of tobacco and possibly alcohol and gaming.

“If I’m gonna tax, then I’m gonna tax,” Evans said. “If we’regoing to have to raise taxes, we need to raise taxes on all thenon-essentials. From a fairness standpoint, why should we justincrease cigarette taxes?

“Everyone talks about tobacco-related health problems, butthat’s not just lung cancer,” he continued. “There’s cancer of themouth and all kinds of similar illnesses, and a lot of that comesfrom dipping.”

State senators, meanwhile, have not yet produced their owntobacco tax legislation, and are just waiting for the House tohammer out the details on HB 364.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, said her halfof the Legislature has mostly weighed the options of which fund todeposit the forthcoming revenues into rather than how much the taxshould be.

“It’s still early on all of that,” she said. “There’s going tobe a lot of discussions before we can settle on anything. There’sfolks on both sides of the issue right now.”