In a tough session, lawmakers agree: No new taxes

By Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The 2011 legislative session, which begins Tuesday, is expected to be a busy one, filled with items that could be controversial.
But do not look for that controversy to include proposals to increase taxes.
In the fall, members of the Democratic House leadership discussed a possible tax increase to deal with the most urgent issue facing legislators – a budget hole that is between $500 million and $1.2 billion, depending on whose calculations are being used.
But that idea apparently has been abandoned.
“There is no room to even talk about additional revenue,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. “I doubt you will even see any move to increase any fees. In other words, we are going to live within our available means.”
Earlier talk centered on the possibility of increasing fees for various state services, such as performing environmental inspections of businesses. Some of those fees have not been increased in decades, and House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, has said that in some instances they don’t cover the state’s cost of providing the service.
In other words, Stringer said, the service is being subsidized by the taxpayers.
Stringer also had discussed a measure to allow voters to decide whether they wanted to raise taxes – possibly “sin” taxes, such as those on casinos – to deal with the budget woes.
But Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant has said the Legislature, not voters, should decide whether to increase taxes. He also said he is against any tax increases.
Gov. Haley Barbour agrees.
“I will oppose any tax increases,” he said in the narrative of his budget proposal. “Raising taxes in a troubled economic time is irresponsible and hampers recovery. It also is the enemy of controlling spending.”
Barbour has said he would be willing to look at whether certain fees should be increased to cover the cost to the state.
But during an election year, as 2011 is, McCoy does not seem inclined to even look at the fees. In past sessions, the House has passed legislation to increase certain fees, but those proposals have died in the Senate.
The House did eventually get legislation enacted – in 2009 – to increase the cigarette tax. Legislation also has been passed during Barbour’s tenure to increase taxes on nursing homes and hospitals to draw down more federal Medicaid funds.
The hospitals in particular opposed the tax increase.
While legislation to increase revenue is not expected to have much traction during the 2011 session, some lawmakers will stake make efforts to do so through proposals such as creating a lottery, increasing the tax on soft drinks and increasing the income tax.
But legislators in both chambers agree that no matter what tax or fee change is proposed, none of it is expected to pass.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.