ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Municipal officials are again proposing a 1 percent local sales tax as a way to build parks, improve water systems and get crumbling streets back into shape.
They need a change in state law to move forward. Legislators have resisted local tax proposals for years, and it’s not clear whether 2013 will be different.
Under two bills that await debate, House Bill 523 and Senate Bill 2145, a local sales tax could be set only if there’s a city election and at least 60 percent of voters approve.
Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson, who is president of the Mississippi Municipal League, said the tax would help cities improve the quality of life by offering better services.
“This is a bill to give the power to the people back home,” Johnson said.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, has argued against the tax for years. He said people from rural areas would still have to pay it if they shop in cities, but they wouldn’t have a vote and wouldn’t get the benefits.
“It’s promoted as allowing people to tax themselves,” Bryan said. “Of course, it’s the exact opposite. It’s allowing people to tax others. That’s the key to it…. I’ll believe they’re letting the people who pay the tax vote on the tax when they set up voting machines in Northpark Mall and allow the people who shop there (to) vote on whether they want to send an additional 1 cent per dollar to Ridgeland.”
Northpark Mall is one of the busiest shopping areas in the state.
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said cities should have the option of setting a local tax.
“In this time of difficult fiscal challenges, municipalities ought to be able to make decisions about taxation issues,” Horhn said.
Lois Hawkins, a Greenville City Council member, said when she campaigned, people told her they want better schools, a safe community and more local jobs. She said better streets and recreational facilities would help retain and attract residents, including those who could create jobs to keep the economy rolling.
“I think they’ll pay more for better services,” Hawkins said.
Quitman Mayor Eddie Fulton said small towns can compete for federal money to repair streets, but they face competition from others who want the money to improve water and sewer systems. He said it’s “embarrassing” to bring prospective employers to town if the streets are full of potholes.
“It looks like you don’t care,” Fulton said.
Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said lawmakers like to talk about self-reliance and responsibility. He said allowing city voters to decide on setting a local sales tax is a way of encouraging those things. As for the argument that the tax is paid by people who don’t live in the cities, Reed said: “That’s just not a reasonable position to take” because the visitors drive on city streets and use other city services while they’re shopping.