Senate OKs Jackson tax, liquor sales in resorts

Published 11:43 pm Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Mississippi Senate narrowly passed two bills Friday that could directly affect people’s pocketbooks.

One would let Jackson voters decide whether to boost the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent on many items in the capital city. If 60 percent of voters approve, the tax would be kept in place until July 2014 to help pay for local law enforcement, fire protection and road repairs.

The other bill would allow liquor to be sold in restaurants in a few areas where such sales are now prohibited — at a proposed resort in Tishomingo County on the far northern end of the state; in Flowood and part of Pearl in central Mississippi’s Rankin County; and at two resorts in Pearl River County in the south.

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Flowood voters would get to vote on whether to allow the liquor sales; there is no referendum provision for the other areas. Package-store sales would still be banned.

Supporters say all of the proposals are good for economic development.

Opponents say the local-option sales tax in Jackson could take money from people who live outside the city, and the liquor loopholes could violate the wishes of people who want to keep alcohol sales illegal where they live.

Sen. Merle Flowers, a Republican from Southaven, was among the senators voting against both bills. Questioning whether Jackson officials have been good stewards of public money, he talked about the bumps and pot holes on one of the major thoroughfares near downtown.

“When you ride up and down Fortification Street, you have to wear a mouthpiece to keep your teeth from clapping,” Flowers said.

Sen. John Horhn, a Democrat now running for mayor of Jackson, said revenue from a higher local sales tax could generate $21 million a year to help the city through tight financial times. He said the groceries, restaurant meals, hotel expenses and some big-ticket items such as car sales would be exempt from the tax.

Horhn pointed to several developments that could improve the business climate in Mississippi’s largest city, from a recently opened convention center to a new federal courthouse that’s being built downtown.

“We have what we think are the makings of helping Jackson get out of the financial hole it is in,” Horhn said.

Four Jackson police officers watched the debate from a Senate balcony, but Mayor Frank Melton was at the federal courthouse several blocks away, waiting to see whether a jury would convict or acquit him on charges stemming from his sledgehammer attack on a duplex in 2006.

In debating the Jackson bill, senators defeated a proposal by Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, to let any city or county in Mississippi have a local sales tax.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said allowing a local sales tax would hurt rural residents who travel to large trading centers to do their shopping.

Sen. Gary Jackson, R-Kilmichael, asked Burton whether people who live outside cities or counties would be exempt from paying local-option sales taxes. Burton said they would not.

“I just don’t understand how you believe in taxation without representation,” Jackson shot back.

The Jackson sales-tax bill passed 30-18, getting one more vote than it needed for a three-fifths majority.

The liquor bill passed 29-19, getting exactly the number it needed.

Both bills were held for the possibility of more Senate debate. If they survive, the bills would go to the House for more work.

The bills are Senate Bill 3268 and House Bill 1441.