This has been ‘not so much’ year at Miss. Capitol so far

This year has been defined by a struggling economy and anemic tax collections, and that has limited the possibilities for innovative new programs in education, health care and other state services.

Legislators convened in early January and originally were scheduled to end their session in early April. They’re now considering taking a few weeks off and returning to the Capitol in May to finish their most important project – writing a budget for the year that begins July 1. With Gov. Haley Barbour’s blessing, legislators want more time to understand the potential impact the federal stimulus package will have on state spending.

Lawmakers still plan to finish work by late March or early April. Unless the course of events changes dramatically in the next two weeks, this session will be remembered for, well, not so much.

So far, many of this session’s big issues are unresolved.

Still on the to-do list: Finding a “permanent” solution for a shortfall in the Medicaid budget and figuring out whether to resolve a years-long debate about increasing the cigarette tax.

It appears unlikely that lawmakers this year will restrict the use of eminent domain, with the governor announcing that he is vetoing a bill that would severely limit the government’s taking of private property for use in economic development projects.

Short of miraculous last-minute wrangling, it’s a safe bet that lawmakers won’t enact any big changes to the election system – either to allow early voting, which many Democrats and Republicans want; or to require voters to show identification at the polls, an issue Republicans and conservative Democrats have been pushing for more than a decade.

A bill with both provisions passed the House with bipartisan support but was unexpectedly torpedoed by four Republican senators because they objected to letting people start to vote two weeks before election day.

Negotiations resume this week about the cigarette excise tax, which is currently 18 cents a pack, the third-lowest in the nation. A small group is also wrangling on a proposed hospital tax to help pay for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled.

Emily Wagster Pettus
Clarion Ledger