JACKSON, Miss. —
Mississippi lawmakers get hopping mad when Washington tries to tell the state what it can or can’t do. But, they’ve been plenty willing this session to make the state government exert similar control over local government.
The House passed a bill that says cities and counties can’t ban junk food or limit the size of soft drinks. If the bill becomes law, it would mean, for example, that the tiny Delta town of Alligator couldn’t put a local regulation on the sale of Kool-Aid pickles in convenience stores or impose the same kind of no-big-sodas rule that Mayor Michael Bloomberg set in New York City.
The House and Senate each passed its own bill to pre-empt cities and counties from setting a local minimum wage, though there’s been little effort to do so. Some lawmakers say local governments should be able to make these decisions if they want, but supporters of the ban — who are more vocal — say local rules would impose unfair burdens on businesses and create a confusing patchwork for developers trying to lure industries to the state.
Lawmakers maintain tight control over local option sales taxes, rejecting for the umpteenth year a proposal to let cities set a 1 percent sales tax. This year’s plan would’ve required a local election, with at least 60 percent of voters approving the tax before it could be imposed. It also said that the tax would be time-limited and for specific projects: Once a park is built or a water system is repaired, the tax would disappear.
Because legislators said “no,” cities still need to come to the Capitol, individually, and ask in their nicest voices if they can — pretty please with sugar on top — set some sort of local tax. This usually takes the form of a tourism tax, an extra penny per dollar for hotel nights or restaurant meals. Lawmakers have shown a willingness to allow tourism taxes on a case-by-case basis, but usually with the proviso that the tax expires after a certain number of years.
Two House bills that died would’ve made Mississippi thumb its nose at the federal government. One would’ve created a state commission to try to nullify some federal laws. Another would’ve prohibited the state from enforcing any federal limits on guns. Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said federal law takes precedent over conflicting state laws.
“From a constitutional standpoint, that’s been resolved a long time ago,” Blackmon said.
During debate on food labeling, Rep. Gregory Holloway said local governments shouldn’t be allowed to randomly regulate things like the size of soft drinks.
“If you want to go eat 20 Big Macs, you can eat 20 Big Macs,” said Holloway, D-Hazlehurst.
Democratic Rep. Omeria Scott, who’s running for mayor in her hometown of Laurel, opposed the bill. “Given that Mississippi is the fattest and most unhealthy state in the USA, I don’t think we should take a tool away from them if they should choose to use it,” she said.
Holloway told The Associated Press this past week that he believes businesses could’ve been harmed if local governments were allowed to set food regulations. No toy in a kids’ fast-food meal in, say, Jackson? Customers would drive to Ridgeland to get the food and toy, and the Jackson business would lose money.
“I do think the Legislature should reserve or retain some authority or decisions over political subdivisions,” Holloway said.
“Political subdivisions,” in legislative speak, means cities or counties.
“We don’t want political subdivisions doing different things,” Holloway said. It’s a sentiment he shares with many, if not most, of his Capitol colleagues.