HARRISON COLUMN:Cigarette tax conferees experienced 'failure to communicate'

JACKSON – Both the House and the Senate have voted by overwhelming margins during the 2009 session to increase the cigarette tax.
That being the case, it would seem reasonable to assume that before the legislative session concludes Mississippi’s 18-cent per pack cigarette tax will be increased.
And before the session concludes sometime in May or, gulp, perhaps as late as June, the cigarette tax might be increased. But as of this moment, and remember the Legislature is a fluid process, there is no legislation alive to increase the cigarette tax.
That legislation died last Wednesday with the 8 p.m. deadline for House and Senate leaders to reach an agreement.
Its death could be a case study on how not to negotiate in the legislative process.
Or as the prison guard told the Paul Newman figure – “Cool Hand Luke” – in the classic 1967 movie “what we got here is a failure to communicate.”
Negotiators, led by Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, on the House side, and Finance Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, on the Senate side, entered the Wednesday deadline 30 cents apart on how much the cigarette tax should be increased.
The House had dropped from a $1-per-pack to 90 cents. The Senate had increased from 49 cents-per-pack to 60 cents. The logical place in the middle is 70 cents.
Not in the Legislature.
While the deadline to reach an agreement and file a report in the offices of the clerks on both sides was 8 p.m., it was not until well after 7 p.m. that Watson and the two other House negotiators, Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, and Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, came strolling down the halls of the Capitol from the House side to the Senate side.
At times, that stroll is equivalent to entering a foreign country. They were followed by lobbyists and journalists who had been waiting patiently all day for the meeting to occur.
The House negotiators sat in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, which now serves as the Senate’s primary meeting room, for several minutes with lobbyists and journalists waiting for the final negotiations to occur.
Finally, after 7:30 p.m., Kirby and his two negotiators, Eric Powell, D-Corinth, and Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, appeared from a side room, which serves as Kirby’s office. Kirby apologized, saying he did not know his House counterparts were there.
It was soon resolved that through communications earlier in the day the House had come down another 10 cents to 80 cents per pack. Kirby then made the Senate offer. He pointed out he was yielding to the House position on a few side issues, but that their offer was still 60 cents per pack. They had not budged.
A trace of surprise appeared to spread briefly across the face of Watson – normally a placid poker player.
The House negotiators then left for a few minutes to consider the offer. Then they came back and said that if 60 cents-per-pack was the final offer, the negotiators were at an impasse.
The Senate negotiators eventually left for a few minutes to talk amongst themselves and came back.
Both sides again re-affirmed the need for the additional revenue a cigarette tax would generate in an extremely tight budget year. Both sides re-affirmed the positive impact an increase in the cigarette tax would have on smoking cessation, especially among teens.
Yet nothing was resolved as the 8 p.m. deadline came and passed.
Kirby said later he thought Watson would accept the 60 cents per-pack offer. That had been the word in the halls of the Capitol all day among lobbyists. Kirby said Watson all but indicated to him he would take the 60 cents per-pack.
Watson said he does not know how that rumor came to be since he never gave that indication.
Kirby also said later he would strongly consider a compromise at the contiguous-state-average – 64 cents. But Kirby never made that offer faced with the ticking clock last Wednesday
Some House members close to the negotiations say they were stunned Kirby did not offer that.
At any rate, there was a failure to communicate.
Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at bharrison@djournal.com or at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio