‘Citizen power’ to be tried to boost state’s tobacco tax

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 30, 2008

It has rarely been used in Mississippi — never in a landmark way — but Mississippi voters have a way to amend the Constitution.

Called “initiative and referendum,” today’s process was born in 1993. Voters have the power to change the state’s basic law.

Two Mississippians, Bill Luckett of Clarksdale and Rory Reardon of Jackson want to try it. They have taken the first step by filing with the Secretary of State to establish a variable tax rate on cigarettes.

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Luckett and Reardon have 18 enumerated steps to go — the largest of which will be obtaining the signatures of 90,000 registered voters on petitions, each of which must be on the front (only) of letter-size forms verified by the circuit clerks in 82 Mississippi counties and must be balanced by congressional districts statewide.

The history of “I&R” in Mississippi is checkered.

On the one hand, the 1890 Constitution has always commanded that there will be a way for the people to amend the Constitution without any action needed by the governor, the Legislature or the courts. But on the other the Legislature has taken great pains to make sure changing the Constitution is about as far from a cakewalk as it could be. The procedural pitfalls are almost too many to count.

Two illustrations:

• Assuming petitions are received, reviewed and pass muster, the Legislature must have a chance to have a say on the wording. If lawmakers don’t like what petitioners want, the Legislature can offer an amendment containing the wording that lawmakers prefer.

• Initiatives go on the polls during state elections. The next one is in 2011. If they pass, they still aren’t valid unless at least 40 percent of the people voting in the biggest race of the day also make it to the bottom of the ballot and vote “yes” or “no” on the initiative.

The biggest test for I&R in Mississippi came 12 years ago. Term-limits fever was sweeping America and there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for “two and out” here. But as voting day approached, there was a lot of confusion about the wording. Yes, a two-term limit would apply to governors and legislators — but what about mayors, school superintendents, tourism committee members or college deans and football coaches hired on state contracts? There was enough doubt, fabricated or not, for voters to say “no,” and the initiative failed.

Still, lawmakers didn’t much like that the process came as close to nicking their whiskers as it did. And the process is even more obfuscated now.

Luckett, an attorney and restaurant owner, and Reardon, an advertising executive, are undaunted.

Even though Gov. Haley Barbour will, for the first time, actually back increases in tobacco taxes during the 2009 session, he wants the money to go to the general fund to offset, in part, an expected decline in state revenue from other taxes.

Luckett and Reardon, like the House leadership, want the money — almost every penny — to go to Medicaid. Of amounts that don’t, they want 2 percent to fight Medicaid fraud, 1 percent to fund programs to help people stop using tobacco and 2 percent for administration.

They estimate $100 million per year from their tax, which, if matched with today’s nearly 3-to-1 federal allocation, would provide $400 million annually for the medical bills of indigent and disabled people.

More numbers: The state’s existing tax is 18 cents per pack, one of the lowest in America. Barbour proposes 42 cents per pack for name-brand cigarettes and 61 cents per pack for off-brands. Luckett and Reardon propose half the prevailing national average among states, recalculated every year. Today, the 50-state average is $1.19. So half would be 59.5 cents per pack.

Luckett and Reardon didn’t say so, but their initiative is likely grounded in the fact the Mississippi Legislature has been all over the map on tobacco taxes for about a decade. Both chambers have passed far larger increases than they propose, but at different times and once met by a Barbour veto.

Health advocacy coalitions have all along called for higher taxes as a disincentive to smoking, period. They don’t care whether the state needs the money or not. They want people, especially teens, to stop smoking or, better yet, never start.

There are lots of questions. What if lawmakers pass a bigger tax? Will Luckett and Reardon drop their effort or will they be seeking, in effect, a tax cut? What if Congress does away with Medicaid in favor of some other health program?

This much is clear: The Legislature doesn’t like the public passing laws and their disdain is likely to rise markedly when people start meddling in taxation.

It’s not a quick and easy story. But it should be an interesting one.


Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail cmitchell@vicksburgpost.com.