UPDATE: Still no deal on state cigarette tax increase

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers made no progress Tuesday as they restarted their stalled talks on a proposed increase in the cigarette excise tax.

During a two-hour meeting, the House made one offer, which the Senate rejected.

The latest House plan was identical to its own previous offer of 75 cents a pack. Some details were different on when the increase would start and how the revenue would be distributed.

“We really hoped you guys would, I hate to say ‘see the light,’ but come down some,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, told his House counterparts.

During negotiators’ last meeting in early April, the Senate offered 64 cents a pack. Senators made no new offer Tuesday.

Legislators say they can’t finish writing a state budget until they agree on the cigarette tax. They also see a cigarette tax increase as a way to head off an increase in the price of car tags.

Mississippi’s current cigarette tax of 18 cents a pack is the third-lowest in the nation.

Thomas J. Payne, associate director of the ACT Center for Tobacco Treatment, Education and Research at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told lawmakers Tuesday that Mississippi has one of the highest smoking rates in the nation, and he believes that’s connected to the low tax.

Payne said for every 10 percent increase in the tobacco tax, there is usually a 2 percent reduction in smoking among adults. He said there is a larger drop in smoking rates for young people.

House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said he believes some tobacco companies want to keep the tax low to keep the smoking rates high.

“It seems to me we’ve got some invisible forces at work here,” Watson said.

The committee room was packed, as usual, with tobacco lobbyists and health advocates. The negotiators did not set their next meeting date.

The full House and Senate met from early January until early April. Lawmakers are spending several weeks in recess while negotiators work on the cigarette tax and a few other issues, including an evaluation of how the federal stimulus package might affect Mississippi government.

Legislators were told this week that May 6 is the tentative date for both chambers to return to the Capitol to finish writing a budget for the year that begins July 1.

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The bill is House Bill 364.

 

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press