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Budget worries remain legislators’ top priority

It’s gotten into their heads.

With Mississippi’s tax revenues falling short by around $500million and budget cuts the talk of the state house for the thirdstraight year, local lawmakers are putting their ideas on paper andplanning to introduce legislation that would enact their owncash-saving methods when the 2011 legislative session beginsTuesday. Another round of low-percentage state spending cuts thatwill add up to millions will likely be necessary to make the fiscalyear 2012 budget work, and the legislators in and near LincolnCounty are penning their bills – some old, some new – to help meetor avert that challenge.

“The message I want to send is there’s so much of our tax dollarsthat are wasted,” said District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven.”It really makes me angry when we’re told we’re going to cut thisagency and they’re going to shut their facilities down because theyjust can’t function. It’s just not true. They just need to stop thewaste.”

Currie’s ideas on stopping government waste haven’t changed much,and neither has her legislation. Several of the bills she’s alreadyplaced on file for 2011 are the same measures that have been passedover and defeated in previous sessions.

But, once more, Currie will try to pass laws that would eliminateemoluments – retirement compensation for state employees who livein state-provided homes – and force those living in state-providedhomes to pay fair rent. She’s also gunning for the MississippiDepartment of Mental Health again, with bills on file that wouldcreate new qualifications for its executive director and dissolveand reconstitute the state board of mental health.

“I’m sending them back,” Currie said. “They were the right thing todo then, and they’re the right thing to do now. (State directors)just need to stop the waste. It’s plain and simple, exactly what wedo at home when we don’t have the money.”

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, has other ideas. TheLawrence County lawmaker wants to pump up state revenues by levyingincreased taxes on sin. Already he’s dropped bills into the Househopper that would increase taxes on products harmful to one’shealth or financial well-being.

“If we’ve got to have casinos, I’d make them pay their fair sharelike they do in adjoining states,” Evans said.

Evans isn’t stopping with gambling houses. He’s introducinglegislation that would further increase the excise tax oncigarettes, as well as legislation that would enlarge that tax onall other forms of tobacco, such as dip and chew. He also wants toincrease the excise tax on light wine and beer.

He hasn’t yet introduced a bill to do so, but Evans also wants thestate to collect sales tax on items purchased on theInternet.

Perhaps Evans’ farthest reach will be House Bill 175, which wouldincrease the state’s income tax rate. The current state income taxrates stand at 3, 4 and 5 percent in increments of $5,000 up to$10,000. Evan’s bill would add another bracket for income in excessof $15,000, which would be taxed at 6 percent.

“It would affect me personally, and I’m willing to do that,” Evanssaid.

Evans’ faith in the success of his legislation is low,however.

“They’ll go to the ways and means committee and you’ll never hearof them again,” he said.

One of the members of the House Ways and Means Committee isDistrict 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, who is planning asession that will consist mostly of work on others’ legislation. Hepredicted no major issues will come through the House GamingCommittee, which he chairs.

“I’ll be riding herd on some of the budget matters,” Moak said.”I’ll more than likely spend most of my time on ways and meansmatters. I think it will really be a year of prioritizing.”

Moak is introducing several bills that will cut a deal to thecitizens, like House Bill 19, which would create a second sales taxholiday in December and add school supplies to the list of tax-freeitems on both weekend events. He is also planning legislation thatwould provide income tax adjustments for tuition fees and fuelcosts.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Brookhaven, could not bereached for comment. As of Dec. 22, she has no bills pending in theSenate for 2011.