Opinion – 2/28/2006

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Panolian: OPINIONS – Rep. Morris & Rep. Burnett

 From the 2/28/06 issue of The Panolian       

Next state budget gets work in House of Representatives

The House of Representatives completed action last week on spending and revenue bills that originated in our chamber, putting more pieces of the puzzle in place for the next state budget.

There was a continued move by the House and Senate to reduce the sales tax on grocery items and to increase the excise tax on cigarettes. The House approved HB 1643 early in the week to cut the grocery tax in half from 7 percent to 3.5 percent and to raise the excise tax on cigarettes from 18-cents per pack to
$1 per pack. The Senate’s version in SB 3084 differed only in that it raised the tax on cigarettes to 80 cents per pack.

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The House voted twice on the Senate version late in the week. The first time, it failed to get enough votes on the House floor for passage. A second vote was held on Friday, Feb. 24 and it easily passed the House after the language in HB 1643 was inserted and the Senate wording deleted.

Earlier in the session, both chambers passed SB 2310 to reduce grocery taxes until phased out completely in the year 2014 and to hike cigarette taxes to $1 per pack by next year. However, Gov. Barbour vetoed that bill and the Senate has not yet attempted to override the veto. Any attempt to nullify a governor’s veto must start in the chamber where the bill originated, this one being the Senate.

The House Ways and Means Committee was particularly busy this week meeting a Feb. 22 deadline for floor action on the revenue bills.

Ways and Means, through HB 1634, also approved a $187 million general obligation bond to finance improvements, additions and upgrades to various state-owned facilities, including those at universities and community colleges. The bill would allocate $120 million for the university campuses, $50 million for community colleges and smaller allotments for economic development and recreational-enhancement projects such as $4 million for an arts and entertainment center in Meridian that would honor a host of Mississippi writers, musicians and artists of all types; $2 million for a major 4,500-acre tourism, recreational and residential project being planned in DeSoto County; and $2 million for a proposed coal gasification project in Natchez

Another major bill passed by Ways and Means was HB 1651 devising a revenue stream for the financially-STRUGGLING University of Mississippi Medical Center. Under the plan, $80 million in state gaming revenues annually would be earmarked for UMMC. The state’s Trauma Care System also would benefit from the plan.

University Medical Center has closed 60 beds and laid off about 300 employees in recent years due to its financial struggles, which have placed its accreditation in doubt. Staff members at the facility have not drawn a pay raise in five years and top professors have left for other states.

The Ways and Means Committee also passed HB 1526, which would issue $20 million in state bonds to help counties pay for property and improvements that might be developed as industrial development sites. To qualify, a county must commit at least 30 percent of its own money toward the amount requested. The Mississippi Development Authority would administer the program.

Ways and Means and the full House also passed the so-called Mississippi Energy Act of 2006, designed to help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and to develop alternative energy sources such as ethanol and biodiesel products. HB 1644 would provide $25 million for incentive payments to ethanol and biodiesel producers. The bill mandates state agencies use vehicles meeting certain federal fuel economy standards or that contain a hybrid motor powered by a combination of gasoline and electricity or a motor equipped for alternative fuels.

Consumers could benefit from the energy bill by receiving a state tax credit for buying a hybrid automobile.
Another provision allows an income tax credit for using efficiency standards when constructing or rehabilitating so-called "green" buildings.

Other Ways and Means action (and the full House) included:
HB 1639 to give volunteer firefighters a break on their automobile tags;
HB 1541 for a new laboratory and other facilities at the State Department of Health;
HB 1638 to issue $50 million in bonds to help finance a statewide wireless communications system and a cooperative data system that might cost as much as $300 million overall;
HBs 1506, 1508 and 1509 to help fund local highways and bridges and other economic development purposes;
HB 816 to increase from $5,000 to $15,000 the amount of National Guard and Reserve gross pay that is excluded from state income taxes.

We also were at work in House committees and the House floor considering general bills (i.e., policy issues, rather than financial) and constitutional amendments originating in the Senate. They face a March 8 floor deadline.

House committees approved:
SB 2332 to prohibit auto insurance rate increases or cancellations for automobiles not being driven while military personnel are on active duty;
SB 2049 extending a charter school study commission for another year;
SB 2843 raising the weekly maximum unemployment check to $215 this year and $220 next year, compared to HB 207 raising the maximums to $230 and $250;
SB 2915 ensuring that the president of the state universities’ student council organization will have a reserved seat at each meeting of the State College Board.
Gov. Barbour this week signed HB 562 that will provide about $6 million worth of new voting machines around the state. They will be used for the first time in primaries on June 6.


To follow the Legislature on the Internet, go to: . To contact a member of the Legislature at the Capitol, call 1-601-359-3770.



Burnett represents District 9 which includes portions of Panola, Quitman, Tate and Tunica Counties.
Morris represents Mississippi’s House District 11 which includes portions of Panola and Tate Counties.


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