February 9, 2012 1:06:00 PM
Democratic bitterness over Republican campaign tactics in last year's Mississippi legislative elections erupted Wednesday in a debate over an otherwise routine local bill.
Several Democrats said opponents sent mailers claiming they voted for a large number of tax increases, unfairly counting times they voted to raise or renew taxes requested by individual cities and counties.
"The very first mailer showed me in a little red convertible and talked about how many times I voted for taxes, and I could not figure out what it was talking about," said Sherra Lane, D-Waynesboro, at times fighting back tears.
The spark was a bill to renew a 2 percent tax on Hancock County hotels for two years to fund tourism promotion. The bill passed the House 69-44, with only one more vote than the required 60 percent majority of 68 votes.
Republicans won a majority in the Mississippi House after the November elections for the first time since reconstruction.
Wednesday's vote is a step toward legislators' eighth renewal of the tax since it was first passed in 1996. Such renewals are usually routine. But Wednesday, Democrat after Democrat rose to ask pointed questions of House Local and Private Committee Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, who was handling the bill.
"Were you one of the ones that got garroted in the last election with these 183 tax increases?" asked Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello.
Warren acknowledged that each vote on a similar local bill could be counted as voting for a tax increase. Some Republicans said that such campaign claims had not been unfair, but reflected reality.
"I would venture to say it is a tax increase and if you vote for it 132 times, you will have voted for a tax increase 132 times," said House Rules Chairman Mark Formby, D-Picayune. Formby, who voted against the bill, urged its defeat, saying he believed that no local tax should be renewed without a referendum.
A number of Republicans appeared to agree with that position. Republicans only voted for the bill 30-28, far short of a 60 percent majority, and the bill only passed because of overwhelming Democratic support. Opposition was even more pronounced among first-term Republicans, who voted against it, 14-5. A majority of Republicans representing the three coastal counties, where gambling and tourism are big parts of the economy, also voted against the measure.
Some House members warned against opposing local bills, which can be among the most sensitive for members, saying it could lead to a cycle of revenge.
"If we ever get in a situation in this state where we have an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we're going to have a bunch of blind and toothless people," said Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston. "If it's not your local and private bill today, it will be your local and private tomorrow or next year."
Rep. Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville, was one of the five GOP freshmen who voted for the measure. Ladner narrowly defeated four-term Democrat Dirk Dedeaux in a district that includes part of Hancock County.
Ladner said he co-sponsored the Hancock measure because local governments had asked for it. Ladner said his campaign made no attacks against Dedeaux for voting for local tax increases, although he said he couldn't speak for political action committees active in his and other races statewide.
Dedeaux, of Gulfport, could not be reached for comment.
Warren said he doesn't agree with Formby's position that all tax renewals should go to the voters. However, he said he does intend for all tax increases to go to voters. Warren also said he intends to limit increases in local tourism taxes to 1 percentage point, saying larger increases "get to a confiscatory stage."
One of the Democrats tapped by new Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn as a chairman, Warren said he wasn't surprised by the outburst, but said he believed other local tax renewals would settle back to being relatively routine.
"Hopefully, we've cleared the air," Warren said after the vote.
House Bill 9 now goes to the Senate.