Tobacco Tax, Private School Subsidies Among 2018 Issues For Mississippi Lawmakers

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers have a long to-do list in 2018, with the three-month session starting at noon Tuesday.

Tobacco Tax

Mississippi last increased its cigarette tax in 2009. Now, about 20 health advocacy groups are pushing a cigarette tax increase of $1.50 a pack, plus "parallel" increases on chewing tobacco.

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The two Republican leaders of the tax-writing committees — House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Smith of Columbus and Senate Finance Chairman Joey Fillingane of Sumrall — said chances of approving the full request are slim.

Advocates say an additional $1.50 a pack could generate about $200 million a year for the state budget and make smoking and dipping more expensive to deter young people from starting a tobacco habit that could cause long-term health problems.

Mississippi's 68 cents a pack is the 39th-highest cigarette tax among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The average state cigarette tax is $1.72 a pack, according to Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington-based supports making cigarettes more expensive.

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Desegregation Funding

Mississippi's three historically black universities face another decline in funding with the expiration of a 15-year agreement from a lawsuit settlement. Jake Ayers Jr., a parent, sued the state in 1975, saying the three universities had been neglected.

A 2002 settlement of the case has provided Alcorn State University, Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University more than $450 million designed to help them catch up to what the state spent on its five universities that were once all white.

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The current state budget includes $6.7 million in settlement funding for the final year such spending is mandated. Sen. Willie Simmons, a Democrat from Cleveland, says African-American members of the Legislature will fight to maintain spending, even if it's no longer legally required.

Private School Subsidies

Lawmakers are likely to consider proposals to expand state subsidies for children attending private schools. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, a Republican from Oxford, says he will introduce a bill that would expand the number of subsidy slots, prioritizing students with special education needs, but then expanding to also allow students of impoverished families to attend private schools.

A coalition of three conservative groups is pushing for an expansion, saying all parents should get to choose private school for their children, and they're supported by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.

It's unclear, though, whether a majority of lawmakers will feel the same way, especially in the House. Among those opposing the move is the Parents' Campaign, which questions whether private schools would be accountable for how they spend public money.

Crime Lab 

Prosecutors and police agencies are increasingly complaining that a lack of money for the state crime lab and medical examiner are hindering their ability to close cases and prosecute suspects in a timely manner. The medical examiner has only three pathologists, each completing more than 500 autopsies a year, twice the recommended maximum of 250.

Lawmakers have proposed an additional cut to those budgets for 2019, but will face pressure to instead increase funding. Lawmakers are looking more kindly on a request to enroll another class of state trooper candidates, proposing money to do so in the Department of Public Safety budget.

BP Money

Lawmakers could again debate how to spend $750 million the state is set to receive, over 17 years. BP is making the economic damages payments to the state because of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Coast lawmakers want the money reserved for projects in their part of the state, but some lawmakers further inland say the oil spill caused economic problems that affected other parts of the state.

-By Emily Wagster Pettus and Jeff Amy, Associated Press

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