hed: Courage needed to buck legislative rules

JACKSON - Friend Martin T. Smith of Poplarville, for 20 years one of the bright lights of the Mississippi Senate (1968-88), has reminded members of the current Senate that they have remedies in their rules to pry loose the pigeon-holed tobacco/grocery tax bill.

That is, if they have the courage to use them. And buck the Barbour Administration.

Overwhelmingly, public support is behind raising the pitifully low tax on cigarettes and cutting in half the 7-cent sales tax on groceries, the highest in the nation.

On the surface, that should be a no-brainer: Making cigs more expensive would deter use of cancer-dealing tobacco, and in this poor state, give overdue relief for Mississippians in buying necessary food.

It's popularly called a "tax swap" bill, because state revenue lost from a grocery tax cut made is up by hiking the cigarette tax in line with other states. In my book, it's a necessary first step in realigning Mississippi's tax structure to make it more equitable.

This has become a classic test of whether our democratic system can work to bring about meaningful reform, or whether raw political power, namely in the person of Gov. Haley Barbour, can trump the voice of the people, and we are helpless to do anything about it.

Former state Sen. Smith has reminded current senators they have a rule to withdraw by petition the House-passed tax swap bill from the Finance Committee where it is "pocket vetoed" by chairman Tommy Robertson. A withdrawal petition signed by a majority of the 52-member upper chamber would put the bill in the hands of the full Senate.

Or as an alternative, Smith points to a longstanding rule permitting any member to move to convene the entire Senate in "committee of the whole," to consider a bill if the motion is approved by a two-thirds vote.

Not mentioned by Smith, but also an alternative, is a motion to suspend legislative deadline rules to permit introduction of an entirely new cig/grocery tax bill. It would require a two-thirds vote in each house for approval.

The current crop of legislators is woefully unfamiliar with using longstanding parliamentary rules such as a withdrawal petition or going into committee of the whole to break a logjam blocking reform legislation the people demand.

Though not used in years, the "committee of the whole" maneuver was a favorite device to circumvent an arbitrary committee chairman before the Legislature began annual, limited sessions in 1970 and set deadlines for introduction and action on legislation.

(Significantly, the device of a minority committee report on a proposed constitutional amendment that had been disapproved by the full House Constitution Committee gave Mississippi annual limited sessions. Minority reports on bills that are voted down by a committee are unheard of these days.)

Martin Smith pointed out in his letter to senators, that a withdrawal petition was used in the early 1980s to remove a bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee that he chaired. It must be noted that the withdrawn bill was local in nature and not of statewide significance as is the cig/grocery tax bill.

The issue of bad policy'

Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory, a 23-year veteran of the Senate who often has been in the forefront of legislative reform, said he felt use of a petition to withdraw the cig/grocery tax bill would be "bad policy." At the same time, however, Bryan said he would support a rules-suspension motion to permit introduction of a new bill on the tax swap.

Barbour twice last year vetoed cig/grocery tax swap bills and Senate backers (remember, Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck broke with Barbour on the bill, and pushed its passage) couldn't muster the 2/3rds vote necessary to override the veto.

Consequently, conventional wisdom is that now an override attempt in the Senate is certain to again fail, with recent party switches giving Republicans a 27-25 edge over Democrats. But would it? Isn't it worth putting Barbour and the Senate to the test in an election year?

A rule suspension resolution initiated in the House now appears the best way to give new life to the monumental tax reform measure. An identical bill earlier passed the House overwhelmingly, so a suspension resolution would easily get the two-thirds vote needed. Then, when sent over to the Senate, Tuck would be put on the spot to show her support of the measure by referring it to committee of the whole. In that case she would relinquish the chair and could participate in the floor debate.

With possibly only three weeks left before the 2007 session adjourns, the Legislature can still regain its historic role as a check on the chief executive's power.

Or if it caves, it would confirm that Barbour's iron-fisted enforcement of party discipline by GOP legislators - something never seen before at the Capitol - has made the Legislature a mere lapdog for the governor.

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