Week 3: Cigs and Cells | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Week 3: Cigs and Cells

Now that House Speaker Billy McCoy has named committee chairs, the House is going into overdrive regarding bill production.

Some of the first bills down the chute likely will garner a fair amount of contention, such as HB 156-157, which would prohibit smoking in all family restaurants and public places in the state, and HB 8, which would prohibit drivers from using cell phones that aren't hands-free.

The American Cancer Society is pushing for the statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and public places, which joins a local smoking ban the Society put before the Jackson City Council for consideration last week.

Beth Dickson, executive director for the Jackson metro American Cancer Society, said municipalities are already trending toward smoking bans in restaurants and public places, and said that municipalities will likely lead the way in a movement that proves inevitable.

"The local ban, like the state ban, exists to protect the health of Mississippians," she said. I think once you have enough strong municipalities behind the movement, we expect the state would likely step on board and do what's best for the citizens of Mississippi."

Mike Cashion, president of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, vocally opposed the legislation batted around in the Jackson City Council, claiming it would run smoking customers off to venues outside the city or county, but said a statewide ban was a small improvement. He added, however, that he did not think a statewide ban would happen this year.

"Smoking bans are not one-size-fits-all cures," Cashion said. "Certain segments of the hospitality industry would be negatively affected. When you get down to the brass tacks of negotiating and compromise, there has to be a spirit of compromise. Unfortunately, there are some on the other side of this argument who are unwilling to compromise on anything. That's one reason you're probably not going to see a statewide ban this year."

HB 31 is equally unlikely to garner any more friends among smokers, particularly correctional-facility inmates, as it seeks to create a pilot program on banning smoking at state correctional facilities.

HB 8, judging by its single-digit status, was another bill in a hurry to meet a committee. That's the bill that bans hand-held cell phone usage in cars, but does not affect ear-mounted borg-phones, which are growing in popularity in the state.

Many bills are likely to fall to the wayside, such as HB 282, which discourages restaurants from serving certain kinds of food to obese people, and HB 291, which authorizes castration as part of a sentence for a rape conviction.

Three bills practically guaranteed to both survive and spur hard debate in the House and across the hall in the Senate, however, are this year's collection of bills dealing with voter ID, as well as bills addressing education funding and a bill that would increase the excise tax on cigarettes.

HB 118 requires a photo ID at the polls for voters born before 1942. The Senate filed a similar voter ID bill last week. Republicans say voter ID is necessary to stop voter fraud, though public record shows the vast amount of voter fraud involves absentee voting—which would not be affected by ID presentation. A bill demanding photo ID could be challenged in court, since the U.S. Constitution does not require photo ID at the polls.

House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said he was putting his strong recommendation behind the Mississippi Department of Education's package this year. The Quality Education Act of 2008, endorsed by State Education Superintendent Hank Bounds, includes full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, teacher pay increases, additional funding for at-risk students, pilot pre-kindergarten programs and other measures.

Nancy Loome of the Parent's Campaign—which also fully backs the package—told the Jackson Free Press last month that the $130 million Quality Education Act contains nothing that is not a necessity.

"Bounds did not consider this package lightly. Everything in it is a requirement if this state is to move forward," Loome said.

Brown said he would push to get the package successfully out of his committee, but warned the measure would face hard battles in the Legislature, especially in a year with a budget shortfall.

HB 22 would make up some of the shortfall, by increasing the state's excise tax on a pack of cigarettes to $1, or 5 cents per cigarette. The same bill raises the tax on all other tobacco products to 15 percent of the manufacturer's list price.

Some House members said last week that any tobacco tax increase would probably be tied to a reduction in the grocery tax, though opponents of a cigarette tax have killed the combination bill, saying the grocery tax reduction would decimate the coffers of small municipalities who are dependent upon grocery tax revenue.

Gov. Haley Barbour, a tobacco lobbyist, has opposed a tax on tobacco products, keeping the state's cigarette tax with the lowest of any state that does not grow tobacco.

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This is fun. USA Today blogged about and linked this story, and its reference to the bill to ban serving food to fat people, on its "must-read" On Deadline blog. Then it got picked up by dozens other blogs, which set my Google alerts buzzing. (Betcha USA Today's little corporate brother, The Clarion-Ledger, wasn't thrilled to see that happen. Of course, they did talk about that bill ... today.)


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