Miss. Cigarette Tax Increase a Miss

Proposal has little support

JACKSON, Miss. -- If Mississippi lawmakers propose a cigarette tax increase for the 2006 legislative session, state House and Senate members said the issue likely would not fare better than its doomed counterpart did last year, reported the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American.

Despite unforeseen financial challenges ushered in with Hurricane Katrina, a proposal to tap extra cash from such a tax increase enjoys little support among legislators, and none from the governor, said the report.

It'll come up, but I don't think it'll get out [image-nocss] of committee, said State Senator Tom King (R), who supported the tax last year as a member of the Senate Finance Committee. There may be public support for more revenue, but I think [the Legislature's] feelings will be the same as far as a cigarette tax goes, he told the newspaper.

Leading the fight against such a tax is Governor Haley Barbour, whose opposition to new taxes helped defeat the 50-cent-a-pack proposal that passed the state House last year and failed in the Senate, the report said. The governor had promised to veto the bill if it reached his desk. Barbour spokesperson Pete Smith said the governor's stand has not changed.

Last year's 50-cent tax passed the House after members rejected the original $1-a-pack levy. The original proposal also included a 10% increase in taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco products.

Mississippi, which has not increased its 18 cents-a-pack cigarette tax since 1985, has the fifth-lowest tax on tobacco products in the nationwell below the national median of 69.5 cents-a-pack for cigarettes, the report said.

State lawmakers in favor of the tax had hoped to use the additional revenue last year to shore up public education and Medicaid funding.

Mississippi's share of the $29 billion Katrina aid package might diminish momentum to find new revenue sources, said State Representative Percy Watson (D), chairman of the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee. It might make the tax more difficult to pass, since we've got more money in our budget now than we anticipated, said Watson, who supported the 2005 measure.

Watson said some opponents of the failed cigarette tax feared Mississippi tobacco retailers would suffer as smokers crossed the state line to buy less expensive cigarettes in Alabama and Tennessee.

An added incentive to the tax was that it would have the favorable result of discouraging smoking, Watson said. But some say higher cigarette prices won't prompt adults to quit and instead will simply cause financial stress. Teresa Smith, manager of Smokey's Discount Tobacco in Hattiesburg and Petal, said she fears an increased cigarette tax would hurt people on fixed incomes. Our elderly are affected mostly by it, because their first stop is the tobacco store to buy cigarettes for the month before they even buy groceries, Smith told the paper.