State leaders, in part, are awaiting info on how federal stimulus dollars can be used.
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Mississippi Legislature, unable to reach agreement on how much to increase the cigarette tax, decided Wednesday to take a break.
The Legislature adjourned the session until May 4 unless Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, agree to reconvene on a different date.
The 2009 session had been scheduled to end Sunday, but members decided weeks ago, with Gov. Haley Barbour’s blessing, to try to leave early and return when they know more about how millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds can be spent by the state.
But they had hoped to leave with an agreement on how much to increase the cigarette tax and how much – if any – to tax hospitals.
Many budget leaders, including Barbour, said both sources of revenue are needed to offset declines in other state tax collections caused by the sagging economy.
But House and Senate negotiators could not agree on either tax issue.
The inability to agree on a cigarette tax increase was particularly galling to members because it is supposed to be the source of revenue for a fund that will be used to hold down the cost of car tags.
Unless an additional $25 million-$30 million is placed in the fund, car tags costs will increase across the state and nearly double in some areas, starting in July.
“It is what it is,” McCoy said. “We’re disappointed we did not fix that … Hopefully we will get an agreement and come on back.”
Many members of the House voted against the motion to recess. While the voice vote seemed close, McCoy adjourned the House without getting a recorded vote even though some members were demanding it.
Some members wanted to stay to work on the car tag funding. But both McCoy and Bryant said there was no need for the full Legislature to remain in session while the House and Senate negotiators worked on the issue.
“The Senate conferees (negotiators) will continue to work with the House toward a reasonable solution,” Bryant said.
The handful of negotiators can meet while the Legislature is not in session. If the Legislature had remained in session, all 174 members would have been paid while they sat around waiting for an agreement.
“I think we probably need to put some distance between us and the state Capitol and get back home and talk to local people,” said House and Ways Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.
He added that polls indicate a large margin of Mississippians favor a “substantial” increase in the cigarette tax as proposed by the House, but rejected by the Senate leadership.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, continued to say that he could not garner the three-fifths majority needed to pass a cigarette tax increase as large as the one proposed by Watson.
“I feel very confident we will come to a conclusion on this,” Kirby said. “I do think there will be a cigarette tax increase.”
Most other major issues were handled before adjournment. But left undone with the failure to agree on a hospital tax was legislation to reauthorize the Division of Medicaid.
Unless the agency is reauthorized by July 1, it will cease to exist under legislation. There would be questions then about whether the governor could run it without legislation.
Before leaving Wednesday, the Legislature took final procedural votes to release to the governor legislation allowing liquor to be sold at Bay Springs Lake in Tishomingo County. The legislation was approved Tuesday.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.