Following nearly two hours of debate, the House of Representatives passed a bill this afternoon that would raise Mississippi's cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1 per pack. House Bill 364, passed by a 81-39 vote, now moves to the Senate for consideration. The bill would bring the state an additional $68 million to $78 million this fiscal year and $200 million in the 2010 fiscal year, according to Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
"As we all know, we're faced with some desperate fiscal challenges in this state," Watson told House members. "We can either sit here, as members of the Legislature, and let all kinds of cuts be made in Medicaid, K-12, higher education, mental healthall of those very essential programsor we can attempt to address the shortage by creating additional revenue."
Watson also emphasized the bill's public-health benefits. He said that the higher price of cigarettes would reduce youth smoking by 20 percent and lead 23,000 adults to quit. The state would also save $1 billion in long-term health-care costs, he said.
Opposition to the bill came primarily from representatives who worried that the state would lose revenue from people buying cigarettes in neighboring states with lower taxes.
Rep. Bobby Howell, R-Kilmichael, proposed an amendment that would have limited the increase to 3 cents per cigarette, for an overall tax of 60 cents per pack. Rep. Howell argued that the smaller increase would keep Mississippi roughly even with it neighbors. Tennessee's cigarette tax is 62 cents per pack, Arkansas' is 59 cents per pack, Alabama's is 42.5 cents per pack, and Louisiana's is 32 cents per pack.
Watson pleaded with legislators to pass a "clean bill" without amendments to preserve its chances of success in the Senate and the governor's office.
"There is no member of this body who will be hurt by voting to increase this tax," Watson said. "We're not going to get a chance to address this tax next year, if we're succesful in increasing it this year. We probably won't get a chance to address it for twenty years."
Legislators also voted down an amendment by Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, requiring that any shortfall in Medicaid funding be made up with revenue from the cigarette tax.
Just before members voted on the bill, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, relayed news of Gov. Haley Barbour's latest round of budget cuts, which took $88 million from K-12 public education. Most of that reduction, $76.6 million, came from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.