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Republicans thwart tax swap


JACKSON – Nothing has been more frustrating this year than watching Republican lawmakers led by Gov. Haley Barbour work hard to kill a legislative proposal that would help everyone in Mississippi.

A bill to cut in half the state sales tax on groceries already has passed the state House of Representatives, but now languishes in a state Senate committee chaired by a Republican ally of Barbour with little hope of surviving.

That’s a sad commentary on an elected official charged with looking out for the welfare of Mississippians. And it’s a good example of how Barbour says one thing but does something else: He has repeatedly expressed his disdain for taxes, but won’t support reducing the grocery tax.

First, a little background: The state House voted last month to cut the state tax on the sale of groceries from 7 cents to 3½ cents on the dollar. The bill also would raise the state’s cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1 a pack.

The proposal would help everyone including people on fixed incomes, those living paycheck-to-paycheck and those barely able to make ends meet. In short, the bill makes perfect sense for one of the nation’s poorest states.

But not to Republicans.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, a Republican from Moss Point, won’t let the full state Senate debate the bill. Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, vows to veto the bill if it manages somehow to clear the state 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 to the bill.

In the process, Republicans conveniently have ignored the big picture and a boatload of facts.

Sales taxes are regressive. Those fixed-rate taxes apply to everyone and, likewise, hit low- and middle-income residents more than high-income residents.

Reducing the sales tax on groceries would put more money in everybody’s pocket. And, more importantly, it would financially help low- and middle-income families.

Need an example? Then try this: A family of four that spends $150 a week on groceries would save $273 in one year – enough money for that family to buy almost two weeks worth of additional groceries.

Meanwhile, smokers would pay more for cigarettes when the state cigarette tax jumps to the national average of $1 a pack. While some people may balk at the higher tax, they forget this: Smoking and buying cigarettes is a personal choice while buying groceries is a necessity.

Besides Republicans, other ardent opponents of the grocery-cigarette tax swap have been Mississippi cities, which rely on a share of state sales tax revenues to fund government. They fear a loss in revenues would threaten services they offer.

The House proposal, however, solves that problem. It would double the cities’ share of grocery sales taxes to ensure they lose no money after the tax is cut in half.

Even a study by the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University debunks Republican opposition to the grocery-cigarette tax swap.

The study said the tax swap could generate more revenue for cities when people use their savings to purchase more groceries, clothing and other taxable items.

But Barbour and other Republicans don’t care. They have staked their ground on the issue and won’t give up the fight.

And their stance has only frustrated and angered people about an issue many see as a no-brainer: Cut the sales tax on groceries and give everyone a break.

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.