Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Two tricky bills survived their respective sides of the Legislature, most likely to be stoned to death or ignored into oblivion by the opposing chamber in the upcoming weeks.
A bill to increase the state's tax on a pack of cigarettes to $1.18 got through the House with a 74-to-42 vote on Thursday, neatly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Jim Ellington, R-Raymond, attempted to beat down the logic of the tax, saying the resulting revenue would fall short of projections as smokers cut down in response to the tax.
"Tennessee raised their cigarette tax. ... They missed their revenue projection mark on that tax by $40 million. By design, it's designed to decrease," Ellington said.
Ellington then berated House members who had successfully campaigned on lowering the grocery tax, accusing them of abandoning their campaign promises.
"Many of you campaigned this last fall on lowering the grocery tax through raising the cigarette tax," Ellington said. "You're taking that off the table, and you'll have to explain that to your people. I don't think you want to do that."
Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, took personal affront to Ellington's assessment.
"I'm one of the people who ran on the tax swap and said they'd vote for it. If it comes up, I'll vote for it. If it doesn't, I won't, but that doesn't mean I lied to my people. … If we increase this tobacco tax without a swap, it will not eliminate my ability to later decrease the grocery tax.
Ellington also attempted to toss out a side item that triggered its own debate, warning that he'd "been told the hospital folks and the governor have been negotiating, and are close to reaching a solution. If you pass this, you will end the negotiation …We should wait and let those negotiations continue."
Jackson Democratic Rep. Cecil Brown said he hadn't heard of any negotiations.
"I have been in contact with representatives of Mississippi Hospital Association and they said there was no negotiations going on with the governor's office. They've just not heard from the governor. There was no negotiation this morning," Brown said.
Another Republican, Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian, then essentially said discussion was pointless because the commission appointed to consider a statewide re-working of the tax system would probably recommend a cigarette tax increase anyway.
"Now is not the time to do it. … It's inconceivable to me that the commission will recommend anything other than a tobacco tax increase," Snowden said.
Evans, apparently still steaming from Ellington's statement, said Snowden's prediction of the commission's approval of a cigarette tax increase was all the more reason to go ahead and vote for it. "… If indeed that is a sure thing, then why not go ahead and do it now? This is the right thing to do," Evans said.
Snowden added later that the vote was pointless because the bill wouldn't survive Gov. Haley Barbour's silly-putty Senate. Barbour is a former tobacco lobbyist who has opposed any attempt to raise the state's tobacco tax. Barbour still gets money from his old firm, which sports his name, though the disbursements to his blind trust are hidden from public view.
Rep. David Myers, D-McComb, argued against that logic, saying the Senate had "just passed the voter ID bill" minutes ago.
"It won't pass over here, but they did it anyway. It didn't stop them," Myers said.
Applause followed the 74-to-42 passing the bill.
"Normally we don't allow applause, but this was deserved," House Speaker Billy McCoy said in response.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, told reporters that he does not anticipate any new tax laws coming out of his committee this year.
Barbour's Senate did manage to push out a voter ID bill last week, however, after having voted to table a motion to reconsider the bill on Thursday.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the process of purging voter rolls would cause more harm than help.
"People are going to show up without the right piece of paper, they're going to have to go home and get it and then fail to come back. I'm afraid we're going to lose a lot of voters in the next election if this bill is passed," he said.
The Senate responded to a recent post-conviction DNA exoneration, the first in Mississippi history, by passing SB 2619. The bill creates a temporary task force to recommend procedures to improve the preservation and testing of biological evidence.
The task force, to be convened by the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice, will contain 17 members from a myriad of associations and government organizations, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the state attorney general's office, an organization dedicated to investigating post-conviction claims of innocence, such as the Innocence Project, among other organizations.
The temporary task force will deliver a report to the governor's office, the chief justice, the speaker of the House, lieutenant governor and the four chairs of the legislative Judiciary Committees before dissolving.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who co-authored the bill, called the creation of the task force "an important first step in improving the justice system of the state."
Breaking Capitol news at http://www.jacksonfreepress.com.