Legislators discuss issues at event

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Tuesday, January 08, 2002

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ – Topics addressed by lawmakers at a Natchez-Adams

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Chamber breakfast Monday ran the gamut from the looming state

budget deficit to taxes, redistricting and tort reform.

Sens. Bob Dearing and Robert Johnson III, both D-Natchez, and

Reps. Philip West, D-Natchez, and Andrew Ketchings, R-Natchez,

spoke on the hottest topics of the session that starts today and

answered some audience questions.

Johnson set the tone for the gathering in his first remarks

at the podium: &uot;It’s hard to say ‘happy New Year’ when there’s

a $110 million deficit.&uot;

He noted that a raise has been promised to teachers starting

in July – to the tune of $70 million this year alone – and that

that raise will continue for another two years.

&uot;Now the question is how to fund it,&uot; Johnson said.

&uot;Just once before we vote on something, I’d like to know

where the money is coming from,&uot; Ketchings said. &uot;That’s

the way you run a business.&uot;

West said he is in favor of dipping into proceeds from the

state’s tobacco fund to cover the deficit. &uot;I didn’t think

we should commit it all to health care because of situations like

this,&uot; he said.

In addition, Dearing noted that state employees will get raises

starting in 2003, and judges are asking for pay raises as well.

This session, &uot;when all is said and done, we’ll leave

with a balanced budget — but that doesn’t mean everybody’s going

to be happy,&uot; Dearing said.

On the topic of redistricting, Dearing stated that area lawmakers

did all they could to resolve the issue in 2001. But, he said,

its fate was in the hands of the conference committee – and other

top officials.

&uot;We have no say on what they do when they go into conference,&uot;

West said.

&uot;Only two people could have gotten it out – the speaker

of the house and the lieutenant governor,&uot; Dearing said.

Johnson said he believes a Hinds County judge has the jurisdiction

to decide the matter. He added that he does not apologize for

rejecting plans that do not favor southwest Mississippi or the

Democratic Party.

&uot;We tried to get the issue resolved, but I’m not going

to acquiesce to a plan that doesn’t strengthen where I live,&uot;

he said.

But Ketchings said he voted for a Republican-supported plan,

&uot;the lesser of two evils.&uot;

&uot;I’m every bit as concerned as you are that we didn’t

take care of this when we had the opportunity,&uot; he said.

&uot;But we should do what’s in the best interest of the people

rather than one party or one candidate.&uot;

Both Bo Whittington, legislative chairman for the Mississippi

Tourism Association and a speaker at the event, and West said

they favor a local sales tax option. But West said that instead

of allowing the public to vote on a municipal sales tax of up

to 1 cent to fund certain projects, the option should be for a

countywide tax of up to 2 cents.

&uot;This provides communities with the opportunity to make

a decision on what (projects are) important,&uot; said West,

who has authored a bill calling for a countywide tax option.

Isle of Capri — Natchez General Manager Wendy Grandin also

asked legislators’ opinions about raising gaming taxes. The Natchez

casino contributes $11 million in payroll, pays out $15 million

to local businesses and makes contributions to charity each year,

she said.

&uot;A 2-percent tax would close some casinos and jobs would

be cut. It would mean the loss of jobs in Natchez&uot; and would

cost the Natchez casino up to $800,000 a year, Grandin said.

But Johnson said that if any industry in Mississippi can afford

to be taxed more, it is gaming. &uot;I won’t be leading the charge,

but if there’s room for a tax, that’s where it is,&uot; he said.

Dearing and Ketchings said they will not vote for any tax increase.

Johnson, a Natchez attorney, was also vocal on the issue of

tort reform, saying it is the responsibility of judges, not the

Legislature, to curb large awards.

&uot;I don’t see a lot of tort reform&uot; in the upcoming

session, Johnson said. &uot;If the Senate passes it, it may not

pass the House. If the House passes it, it won’t pass the Senate.

If it passes both, I guarantee the governor won’t sign it.&uot;

But Dearing said the issue will have to be addressed — both

&uot;venue shopping and limits on punitive damage awards.&uot;

Also at Monday’s event, Whittington said the Tourism Association

is in favor of legislation that would create a scenic byways program

and is against budget cuts for the state’s Tourism Division.

Tourism is a $6.3 billion industry that employs 93,000 people

in Mississippi and contributes $488,000 to the state’s general

fund, he said.