MS lawmakers talk reasons for cigarette tax stalemate

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Mississippi house and senate negotiators will try again next week to hammer out an agreement on how much to raise the cigarette tax after failing to do so on Tuesday. At a public forum in Biloxi on Wednesday, much of the discussion centered on how talks in Jackson the day before had gone nowhere.

Communities for a Clean Bill of Health, which is pushing for a significant cigarette tax increase, sponsored the meeting.

Roy Mitchell, of the C.C.B.H., told the group that he sat in on Tuesday's conference meeting in Jackson.

"Frankly, we're very frustrated. There's a lack of compromise here," said Mitchell.

Rep. Dirk Dedeaux of Perkinston said, "Three members of the house conference committee sit across from three members of the senate conference committee, and they just stare real hard at each other."

The state house wants to tax cigarettes an extra 75 cents a pack. The Senate is set on 64 cents. Some lawmakers say that 11 cent gap isn't too wide for compromise.

"Folks who were there told me that our lead conferee from the senate, Senator Kirby, said something like he'd have trouble getting 75 cents passed in the Senate,"said Sen. David Baria of Bay St. Louis. "I don't think so. I think we came very very close to passing $1 per pack total tax. I think the senate will be amenable to passing 75 cents per pack."

Baria says a stumbling block could be that some senators will vote whichever way the governor asks them to vote.

"That is assuming that Governor Barbour will turn some of these senators loose to vote for it and not threaten to veto it. That's an important part of this whole deal . That Governor Barbour doesn't threaten to veto 75 cents a pack, or 70 cents a pack or whatever number," Baria said.

The conference committee is set to meet again in Jackson on Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Baria, Dedeaux and Representative Randall Patterson of Biloxi say they were optimistic an agreement will be reached before the extended session is over, but they'd like it done sooner.

"Every day that they stand off on reaching a compromise is another day that we are not collecting this revenue. It's less money that we have for the current physical year deficit that we are in," Dedeaux said.

While lawmakers are largely focused on the revenue, health advocates say a higher cigarette tax will payoff with healthier citizens.

"Every ten percent increase in the cigarette tax results in a seven percent reduction in teen smocking and a four percent reduction overall in smoking," said Mitchell.

Legislators advise people wanting to urge their representatives to support the cigarette tax increase to call or send a letter, because most lawmakers are bombarded with thousands of emails every day. However, if you do send an email, make it clear at the very top that you are a constituent.

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