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Dowdy: Cut the grocery tax


JACKSON – Few issues in Mississippi anger and upset people more than a bitter dispute over taxes – especially when state lawmakers want to raise them.

That’s why it’s been so frustrating to watch the endless debate about whether to reduce Mississippi’s excessively high sales tax on groceries. The answer is simple: Cut the tax.

But when faced with a chance to help everyone – including people on fixed incomes, those living paycheck-to-paycheck and those barely making ends meet – Republicans have refused.

I, along with thousands of other Mississippians, don’t understand why. How can anyone staunchly oppose an issue that makes perfect sense for one of the nation’s poorest states?

State House members last month passed a bill to cut the grocery tax from 7 cents to 3½ cents on the dollar and raise the cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1 a pack.

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, a Republican, won’t let the full state Senate consider the proposal. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, promises to veto the bill if it somehow passed the Legislature.

And rank-and-file Republicans in the state House and Senate repeatedly have searched for excuses and reasons, no matter how flimsy, to justify their opposition.

In the process, Republicans conveniently have ignored the big picture.

Sales taxes are regressive – a fixed tax rate that applies the same to everyone. Those taxes hit low-income and middle-income residents harder than high-income residents.

Cutting the grocery tax in half would put more money in everyone’s pockets. Such a move also would help low- and middle-income families, those who need our help the most.

For example, a family that spends $150 a week on groceries would save $273 at the end of one year – enough cash to buy more than a week’s worth of extra groceries.

At the same time, smokers in Mississippi would pay more because one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country would jump to the national average of $1 a pack.

The grocery-cigarette tax swap hardly seems unfair. Think about it: Smoking is a conscious choice made by hundreds of Mississippians while buying groceries is a necessity for everyone.

Besides Republicans, some of the most ardent opponents to the tax swap represent cities in Mississippi, which depend on a share of sales tax revenues to fund their government services.

The House bill, however, includes a key safeguard: It would double the cities’ share of grocery sales taxes to ensure they lose no money after the tax is cut in half. Problem solved.

And don’t forget the study issued Feb. 19 by the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Among other things, the study said some cities could see an increase in revenue with the tax swap. It said many people likely would spend their savings on more groceries, clothing and other taxable items.

Each of these points weakens opposition led by Barbour and other Republicans. Unfortunately, they don’t care or have staked their ground and simply won’t give up.

That’s too bad because if this issue dies in the 2007 Legislature – if Barbour and other Republicans are unwilling to budge – then everyone in Mississippi loses.

Wayne Dowdy, an attorney from McComb, is chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. Dowdy is a former mayor of McComb and former U.S. House member, who served in Washington from July 1981 until January 1989.