Deer Island, Catfish Labeling, Billboards All Signed Into Law

The origin of domestic and imported catfish must be clearly shown on labels under legislation signed Monday by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

In addition, the new law requires restaurants to show on menus where they got catfish, and retailers and wholesalers must tell businesses the source of their fish.

The bill was among dozens signed into law by the governor.

The fish labeling requirement is designed to keep imported, whiskered fish from being marketed under the general label of catfish. Cheaper fish imported from Vietnam had been lowering prices and cutting into sales of farm-raised domestic fish, producers say.

Some of the Vietnamese fish had been labeled as "Delta fresh'' catfish, as in that country's Mekong Delta. Most U.S. catfish are raised in the Mississippi River Delta, in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Under the new law, state Health Department inspectors will monitor compliance by restaurants, while the state Department of Agriculture will check on fish labeling by wholesalers and grocery stores.

Fish wholesalers and retailers will be required to keep records for up to two years.

Congress put regulations in the 2002 U.S. Food and Drug Administration budget requiring imported fish to be labeled as "basa'' instead of catfish. The federal restriction ends when the agency's budget expires Sept. 30.

The United States has more than 150,000 acres of catfish ponds. About 91,000 of those acres are in Mississippi.

Deer Island Purchase

The governor also signed a measure allowing the purchase of Deer Island on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Under the legislation, the state would borrow $10 million to help purchase the 499-acre, privately owned island. No state dollars will be used to repay the bonds because the secretary of state's office will use money collected from tidelands leases to cover the cost.

The money will be paid over 10 years.

Billboard Bill

Musgrove also signed into law a bill to limit the size of billboards, giving companies 15 months to get larger signs in place before the new restrictions take effect July 1, 2003.

It limits new signs to 672 square feet, down from the 1,212 square feet now allowed. Existing double-decker signs would be allowed to remain but no new ones could be erected.

A similar bill passed last year but was vetoed by the governor.

Indian Casinos

Also signed into law was a bill to require the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to collect the 3 percent tax on gaming winnings at its Philadelphia casinos. State-regulated casinos already are mandated to collect the tax on winnings of more than $1,200.

Lawmakers said the Choctaws have been collecting the tax voluntarily under their compact with the state. The requirement takes effect immediately.

Phone Call Tax

Another bill receiving Musgrove's signature would increase to 7 percent the sales tax on out-of-state calls.

In 2000, lawmakers put a 5.5 percent sales tax on out-of-state calls as a way to save local governments from the potential for multimillion-dollar losses in property taxes. Lawmakers said the 5.5 percent levy was producing $16 million, not the $26 million annually that the telecommunications industry had been promised in return for dropping legal challenges to their tax rates.

The 7 percent levy would also be assessed on cell phones.