Insurance and Excise Taxes | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Insurance and Excise Taxes

Avoiding buying car insurance will get a little harder with new legislation passed last week. The Mississippi House of Representatives and the Mississippi Senate agreed on a bill requiring motorists to own some form of vehicle insurance to qualify for a new car tag. The same bill also requires counties to check a state-created database for a motorist's compliance with the new law before issuing or renewing a tag.

State law already requires motorists to own minimum liability coverage for motor vehicles, and it requires law enforcement officers to check motorists for insurance cards during routine traffic stops, police checkpoints or after a traffic accident. But motorists can easily circumvent the process, said Kim Catchings, vice president of operations for Mississippi MoToSteps Motorcycle Safety Training Inc.

"Anybody can sign into an insurance policy, get the card from the insurance company, and then cancel their policy and keep the card. That's enough to fool police when they pull them over," Catchings said. Mississippi is one of the few states that do not already maintain an electronic vehicle-insurance database.

The new law compels the Mississippi Department of Public Safety to create a database containing up-to-date information on insurance policyholders, which would supersede information on an insurance card. It also demands that county tax agencies rely on the database rather than an insurance card when issuing or renewing a tag.

Failure of a vehicle owner or operator to have insurance at the time of a police stop can net them a $500 fine and a suspended driver's license for one year.

HB 620 now heads to the governor.

Evicting the Council?
The Jackson City Council is playing legal catch-up to maintain full-time offices at Jackson City Hall. Current Mississippi law requires all cities with populations of 190,000 or more to maintain individual offices for council members at their respective city halls; however, 2010 Census figures reveal that the city of Jackson's population dropped to around 170,000 citizens, invalidating council members' right to permanent offices.

Deputy City Attorney James Anderson said the city actually fell out of compliance with the law after the 2000 Census. "In 2000, the city's population dropped to 184,000, and the offices are still here," said Anderson, who does not think council members will face immediate evictions without changes in state law.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, is submitting the bill allowing council members to keep their offices, but Horhn had to first submit a rule-suspension resolution last Friday in the Senate allowing the bill's submission. The Senate passed the resolution and it awaits House approval. Council members learned of their violation after the legislative deadline for the submission of general bills had passed.

Horhn said he expected the bill to easily survive the Senate. "No one seems to remember why the bill was needed in the first place, or what the motivation of the population requirement was," Horhn said.

Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell said Jackson City Hall needs a permanent council presence. "City Hall is the people's house, and with this being the capital city, the differing opinions and views of elected officials at the council level, in addition to the executive level, is important," Whitwell said. "This requirement made by the Legislature was intended specifically for the City of Jackson regardless of the population."

Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. said he saw no wisdom in moving council members out of their offices because the building is already open full-time. "We have energy-efficient lighting here at City Hall, so I don't think you can look at cost savings," said Johnson, who could not supply a cost-assessment of maintaining council offices. "Just think about it: We wouldn't shut the offices off. We can't exactly board them up. I mean, what would we do with them?"

Raising the Cost of Smokes
Smokers face another tobacco tax if House and Senate conferees can agree.

Distributors of cigarettes not involved in a $368.5 billion 1997 multi-state settlement with the state of Mississippi face a "tobacco equity tax" of $0.0135 per cigarette under the proposed law, which increases either 3 percent each year indefinitely, or increases based on the national standard for inflation set by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index, whichever is greater. The new revenue goes into the state's general fund.

The bill, authored by Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, survived the Senate with a unanimous vote in February, but Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, inserted an amendment repealing the SB 3020 on June 30, one day before the bill's July 1 activation date, forcing the bill into a conference between the House and the Senate. Legislators supporting the bill argue that cigarette manufacturers not involved in the historic 1997 settlement, orchestrated by former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, have an unfair financial advantage, and the bill would level the playing field. Other lawmakers claim the cash-strapped state simply needs the money.

Johnson did not immediately return calls concerning the type of bill changes he seeks.

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