Thursday, January 8, 2009
Legislature faces money matters
By BARRY BURLESON
The Legislature reconvened in Jackson Tuesday for a new session with budget concerns headlining the agenda.
Sales tax revenues have taken a tumble, Sen. Bill Stone said, and that will mean hard choices in the budgeting process.
“Some 4,600 state agency jobs that have been open for more than two months are frozen in a move that is expected to save more than $79 million,” he said.
Rep. Tommy Woods, starting his 22nd year at the capitol, said simply, “The big thing will be no money.”
He said revenue from casinos had really dropped off and sales tax is “naturally down.”
“This has put us in a pinch,” Woods said.
Rep. Kelvin Buck said the Legislature must look at several possible cutbacks plus some additional means of raising revenue.
“We must deal with the budget, and it’s going to be very short in terms of dollars we have,” he said.
All three agree that a tax increase on cigarettes is likely.
“I have no problem voting for it (the cigarette tax hike) at anytime, but the way it’s written, that’s the key,” Woods said. “The additional revenue going to fund this or fund that – I don’t think that’s the way we need to do it. A dollar is a dollar. In reality, we’re going to have ‘X’ amount of dollars to do ‘X’ amount of things.”
He said rather than earmark the money, it needs to go into the general fund to be used wherever needed.
“We’re not talking about a lot of money,” Woods said. “It’s not going to be our salvation, but it will help.”
Stone said, from talking with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, senators know Gov. Haley Barbour will be presenting proposals from his tax study commission which will include, among other things, a cigarette tax increase.
“The lieutenant governor said he plans to seek an income tax cut if the cigarette tax is passed,” Stone said.
Another taxation issue legislators will address is possibly increasing the homestead exemption maximum from $75,000.
“This has become an important issue around the state and in our area due to recent property reassessments,” Stone said. “I support and will work to raise the exemption but only if we can guarantee the reimbursement from the state back to cities, counties and school districts to offset revenue losses. Raising the exemption without raising the reimbursement would amount to an unfunded mandate which would most certainly force local governments to raise millage rates.”
Buck said he thinks the big issue this legislative session will be tax reform – property taxes, tax exemptions, inventory taxes and more.
“We will be looking at the whole gamut of how we deal with taxes and hopefully develop a more progressive way of dealing with tax issues,” Buck said.
He said some recommendations have been provided by a tax study group.
Buck said he also expects to be heavily involved in healthcare issues, such as continuing to deal with the escalating cost of Medicaid in Mississippi; the formula for funding university and colleges; and adding more accountability for underperforming school districts. Under legislation signed last year, local superintendents would lose their jobs if their districts were labeled “underperforming” as measured by the state accountability system for two years in a row. He said a push is on to add school boards, too. Removing school board members in “underperforming” districts is a recommendation of a Senate-formed Education Task Force.
Stone said infrastructure, particularly highways and transportation infrastructure, looks to be on the forefront this session also. Project Get SMART (Start Mississippi’s Approved Roads Today), a statewide organization chaired by Bill Renick, will be bringing forth a proposal for financing and building the Vision 21 highways as quickly as possible. Other issues that we addressed in the 2008 session, like election reform, immigration issues and a permanent Medicaid funding plan, are also expected to be brought up again this year, Stone said.
Some of the legislation Stone has introduced or had drafted includes:
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