Two Democratic candidates for state office assailed Republicans for their opposition to a popular bill that would cut the grocery tax in half and raise the tax on cigarettes to $1 a pack last Thursday. Gov. Haley Barbour said he would veto the bill if it hit his desk, and Sen. Finance Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Mosspoint, has promised to kill the bill in committee so that pro-tobacco legislators will not have to cast an unpopular vote during an election year.
Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, who is a candidate for lieutenant governor and John Arthur Eaves, who is a candidate for governor, both accused Barbour and Robertson of voting for their own interests rather than the interest of Mississippians. Eaves pointed out that the governor "was one of the highest-paid tobacco lobbyists in Washington," and complained that Barbour still makes money from his old lobbying firm through a blind trust.
"It's time we had a governor for Mississippi, not a lobbyist for tobacco companies," Eaves said. "I'm embarrassed that we've allowed a former tobacco lobbyist to play games with the lives of our children. … When Mississippi has the highest grocery tax in the nation and the lowest tobacco tax of any non-tobacco producing state in this nation."
Franks lobbed attacks at both Barbour and Robertson, claiming that Barbour makes money by supporting big tobacco and that his relatives exploit those same tobacco ties.
He then accused Robertson of a conflict of interest in voting down the tobacco bill.
"This year we see a state senator, the chairman of the Finance Committee … who last year brought the bill out but who refuses to bring it out this year, and you scratch your head and you wonder, why has he changed his position?" Franks asked.
Franks said Robertson and "two other Republican legislators" won a contract from the Mississippi Development Authority—governed by Barbour—to close Katrina relief grants in a coastal homeowner grants program.
"Robertson got $1,200,000, and when you get that kind of money, folks, that influences state government, and that is wrong," Franks said.
Barbour told the Associated Press that the MDA chose the legislators' contract because it was the lowest bid, and Barbour's press secretary Pete Smith told the Jackson Free Press that the governor would not comment on allegations about the illegality of the contract.
"We're not addressing that issue anymore," Smith said.
The House attempted to address the matter itself this legislative session, but failed to pass a Judiciary B Committee sunshine bill that would have required state politicians to report money earned through trusts. House Bill 1532 would also have expanded ethics laws by demanding additional info in public officials' statements of economic interest and would have required politicians' report interests in subsidiary businesses. That bill died in committee, despite Franks' and other House members' vehement support for it.
Robertson would not comment on the legitimacy of his contract. "You have to consider where the accusation came from, and I'm not commenting on that," he said.
When asked if he thought legislators should hold contracts handling federal money, Robertson said the issue had already been investigated.
"The State Ethics Commission has already ruled on this matter," Robertson said. "That's the end of it."
The Mississippi Ethics Commission did investigate the Robertson contract earlier this year, after Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood processed a complaint filed by Jackson resident Edward Hightower.
"Whenever there's an alleged violation of law by a public official, we have to process it," Hood said. "That's just policy."
The commission voted in January to stall an investigation into Robertson's $1.2 million contract, with Democrats Robert Clark and William Wheeler—the only board members appointed by House Speaker Billy McCoy—opposing the move. The complaint against three Republican lawmakers, including Robertson, Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, and Rep. Jim Simpson, R-Gulfport, questioned whether the legislators had violated laws in taking the MDA contracts. Robertson and Beckett formed their company in June specifically to compete for the contract after it became clear that the federal grant money was imminent.
U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Mississippi, who lobbied hard to get the federal money that MDA handed out to the legislators, said defending the federal payout was going to be difficult if legislators are lining their pockets with it. "I feel a responsibility to my colleagues in Washington and for every American to explain that their money was well spent, and people just don't like to see politicians doing business with themselves at the taxpayer's expense," Taylor said this week. "When we go to the well again … I'm fairly confident that somebody is going to say, 'Well, wait a second, you fellows got this money and politicians dipped into it.' Quite frankly, I don't want to have to defend that, because I don't believe in it."
Taylor called the Ethics Commission decision "a bad ruling," and said the investigation was ongoing on the federal level. Sen. Trent Lott, who also pushed hard for the federal aid, joins Taylor in opposing the contract award.