Campaigning kicks into high gear with local debate|[10/05/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 5, 2007

Health care and taxes took center stage at a forum for legislative candidates staged by AARP Mississippi at the Vicksburg Convention Center Thursday.

Hopefuls in Senate District 23 and House District 54 addressed the tobacco and grocery tax issue, expansion of community-based health care and identity theft legislation before about 30 residents and candidates from other local contests.

AARP has stated support for raising the excise tax on cigarettes from 18 cents per pack to $1.18 per pack while reducing sales taxes on food from 7 percent to 3.5 percent. The tobacco tax is third lowest in the nation, while Mississippi’s grocery tax is the highest.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Bills have died in the last two legislative sessions that would have eased the grocery tax and raised the tobacco tax. Its opponents, including Gov. Haley Barbour, opposed the change, fearing higher taxes elsewhere would have to be imposed to make up revenue municipalities would lose and overall economic uncertainty following Hurricane Katrina.

While the candidates generally agreed with AARP’s stance in principle, specifics and strategies varied.

House candidate Thomas Setser, an independent, favored raising the tobacco tax and lowering incrementally the grocery tax. Setser said he would look to eliminate the grocery tax “over time.”

Responding later, Briggs Hopson III, Republican nominee in the Senate race, concurred, saying “a budgetary mess” would ensue if both measures were passed as favored by AARP. His Democratic opponent Eric Rawlings said he doubted any increase in the cigarette tax would lower the number of smokers in Mississippi, but favored elimination of the grocery tax.

Jennifer Thomas, the Democratic nominee in the House race, favored putting the measure before voters in a statewide referendum.

“Let people decide whether they want to be taxed or not,” Thomas said.

Republican nominee Alex Monsour, who has said he favors no tax increases unless voters approve in a referendum, said separating the measures is the best way to measure how much revenue the state takes in from each tax. He said “political issues” are keeping the two efforts as one bill.

Monsour said locally, if cigarette taxes were cheaper in Louisiana, where the tax is now 36 cents per pack, smokers would just go there to purchase their supply.

As for legislation to allow Medicaid funds allocated to nursing homes also to be used to pay for home- and community-based health-care services, the five agreed it would save the state money. This past session, House Bill 528 enabled the executive director of the program to do so, but has yet to receive full funding and implementation.

Only Setser said he would make any modifications, saying the choice of health-care sources “should be made by the people, not the government.”

All five also voiced support for legislation providing for a security freeze on consumer credit information to include all consumers.

A new state law prohibits reporting agencies from releasing someone’s credit report without express authorization of the consumer, but only applies to those already victims of identity theft.

Candidates in the House District 55 race, Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, and Republican challenger Rick McAlister, were among a handful of candidates from other local political races who attended. They were not invited by AARP to speak.

The forum was part of the 50-and-older advocacy group’s 2007 Voter Education Campaign. Organizers with AARP said its eight forums this election year featured candidates only from contests without incumbents.

Another forum to feature all candidates on local ballots is set for Thursday at Covenant Health and Rehabilitation Center at 3:30 p.m.