Reactive: Legislature steers state into slow lane

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sometimes it seems that if members of the Mississippi Legislature were NASCAR drivers, they’d still be out on the track running in circles while others were toasting the winner or devising their strategy for the next weekend.

Behind the curve, so to speak.

Passage of a 50-cent, across-the-board increase in the state excise tax on cigarettes on Wednesday is an example. It took years and years to get Mississippi on par with neighboring states despite constant pressure from health advocacy groups. Apparently, some lawmakers needed the cover provided by declining tax revenue from vehicle sales.

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Gov. Haley “No New Taxes” Barbour, who had also been a roadblock, needed cover, too. In seeking re-election to his current term, he promised a tax study commission, which, in turn, recommended an increase he had previously opposed. The 50-cent hike will make the total state tax 68 cents effective Friday. With the 62-cent federal increase in March the per-pack price zooms to almost $5 for premium brands. Here’s hoping the cost will keep young people from acquiring the dangerous habit and help older smokers quit.

In catching up, however, Barbour pointed out the Legislature still missed a chance for a more thoughtful and better balanced approach. He correctly supports a higher fee for tobacco off-brands not paying into the state’s suit-settlement fund and a federal-style, weight-based tax on smokeless tobacco. Indexing the tax to a regional average might also have been a good shift.

Any relief lawmakers settled by putting the issue of a tobacco tax behind them was, of course, momentary.

Looming large in the extended session are how to fund Medicaid, specifically, and deal with state income that continues to decline as a consequence of the national recession.

Barbour correctly believes a fee formerly collected from hospitals for Medicaid should be reinstated. It would raise about $90 million, but faces opposition from lawmakers who insist on dogging it, incorrectly, as a tax on the sick. What the Legislature will likely do, however, is no better. They will patch up the holes in this year’s Medicaid funding with federal stimulus dollars just as they patched up previous shortfalls with Katrina relief money.

On the overall budget, they’ll likely be tapping the so-called rainy day fund, the 2 percent cushion Barbour insisted be funded during better days.

These are unusual times. The Legislature is not inept. Many voters, however, would rather see Mississippi out front, setting the pace and being innovative. As things stand, lawmakers are almost always reactive, following the field. As long as that’s true, Mississippi will experience life in the slow lane.