Cigarette Tax Dies; Proposal Was To Fund Mental Health Centers

After a debate that pitted emotional arguments about treatment of the mentally ill against promises not to dip into taxpayers' wallets, the House on Wednesday killed an attempt to file a new cigarette tax bill.

The bill would have authorized increasing taxes 9 cents a pack to pay for opening and operating mental health crisis centers. The vote to file a new bill was 76-45, but 81 votes were needed.

Filing a new bill after the normal deadlines have passed requires two-thirds approval of the House and Senate.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, last week unveiled a plan to raise cigarette taxes from the current 18 cents a pack to 27 cents a pack. He said the increase would have generated $21.9 million to operate several crisis centers that have been built but not opened.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said this week that he would veto any tax increase, including one for cigarettes. Senate leaders also have said they oppose new taxes.

It's unclear whether lawmakers will be able to find enough money to open the crisis centers. They face a Saturday deadline to file final versions of budget bills for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Funding mental health crisis centers could require cuts in programs that already are stretched thin. House Rules Committee Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, said during an hour-long debate that it's wrong for the state to have mental health crisis centers standing empty when people need help.

"It's like we have a new car in the garage and we can't afford the tires to put on the car,'' Warren said.

Lawmakers said that mentally ill people in 56 of the 82 counties are kept in jails when there's no room for them in state mental hospitals. Crisis centers have been built in Batesville, Cleveland, Corinth, Grenada, Laurel and another is to be built in Brookhaven.

Most of the centers are sitting empty for lack of operating money. Only the Corinth center has gotten enough money to fill eight of its 16 beds.

In Harrison County, the state also has built, but not opened, a treatment center for troubled adolescents.

"We're proving to the public that we're goofy when we're not funding those things,'' said Rep. Charlie Capps, D-Cleveland.

Mississippi's cigarette tax rate has been 18 cents a pack since 1985. It is one of the lowest rates in the nation.

As budget talks enter their final days, the House and Senate are millions of dollars apart on key proposals, including education.

In end-of-session negotiations the past couple of years, legislators have tapped into special funds, such as one generated by a gasoline tax, to cover general budget needs. However, many budget writers say it's getting tougher to find special funds that have not been depleted.

Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, argued Wednesday against raising the cigarette tax or any tax. He said if mental health crisis centers were a priority, "it would've been funded by now.''

House Public Health and Human Services Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, scolded lawmakers for standing by no-new-taxes pledges when the mentally ill are suffering in county jails.

"Get your head out of the sand, folks. All of you no-tax Republicans, get your head out of the sand,'' Holland said.

Most of the opposition to filing a new cigarette tax bill came from Republicans, but some Democrats also voted against it.

In a written statement, Barbour he was pleased enough lawmakers joined him "in not wanting to be a part of taxing other people's addiction just because state government can't control its own addiction to out-of-control spending.''

The resolution is House Concurrent Resolution 116.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)