JACKSON, Mississippi — If you want a lesson on how the legislative process in Mississippi sometimes turns from fact-based analysis to "trust me" politics, sit in on a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The process of carving out tax benefits for individual industries was on view last week as lawmakers debated the wisdom of taxing carbon dioxide or cutting taxes on heavy truck parts.
In charge of taxes and borrowing, House Ways and Means and Senate Finance are among the Legislature's most powerful committees. The House committee, especially, is willing to consider many requests, whether it's cutting the sales tax rate on motorcycles or lending money to set up or expand grocery stores in economically depressed areas.
As is true in most committees, many bills have their roots in lobbyists. For example, while Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, was promoting a tax cut on truck parts meant to induce more truck repair business in Mississippi, a lobbyist was shuttling him notes.
Legislative rules say any bill that spends money or cuts taxes is supposed to have a fiscal note attached when it comes out of committee. The rules say state agencies including the Legislative Budget Office — the Department of Revenue, the Department of Finance and Administration and the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review — are supposed to write the notes, which project how a bill would affect how much money the state is collecting.
The rules also say that any time a bill comes to the floor without a fiscal note attached, any representative or senator can seek a majority vote to force such an estimate.
While sponsors often have a projection available, it's almost never entered into the Legislature's computer system where the public can look it up. One day last week, Ways and Means had 23 bills on the House calendar, and the computer system contained no fiscal notes for any of them.
That's not unusual. The Mississippi Center for Economic Policy, which lobbies for more economic opportunity for poor people, found that in 2013 not a single fiscal note was posted for any bill.
"Policymakers, advocates, and the public, should have adequate data on the costs of such proposed bills that affect revenue collections before making a decision about whether to support or oppose," senior policy analyst Sara Miller wrote in December.
Did lawmakers, for example, really understand that they would end up giving away $155 million of state tax money before they voted last year to grant tourism tax rebates worth 30 percent of construction costs to "cultural retail attractions?" The fact that a bill to extend that subsidy for Mississippi-themed malls died this year without even coming to a full vote of the House suggests that maybe they didn't.
There's also a fight this year over efforts to make changes to how the state collects taxes. The Department of Revenue estimates the proposals could cut tax receipts by up to $300 million a year. The Mississippi Economic Council, which is pushing the bill, says those numbers are hyperbole. A more formal and independent method for estimating what a bill costs might cast some light on who's right in that dispute.
Sure, a lawmaker could force a vote to try to demand a fiscal note. But such votes are rare. That's because they could be interpreted as a challenge or insult to the powerful chairman of a tax-writing committee.
The reality is that the Mississippi Legislature still runs on trust, not in-depth analysis. When a member pushing a bill says how much it will cost, others often have little choice but to trust.
Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy