August 9, 2018 10:42:10 AM
A growing chorus of governments across the Golden Triangle is asking the Mississippi Legislature to convene a special session and consider diverting some internet sales tax revenue to the local level.
Columbus was one of the first cities in the state to pass such a resolution, on July 17. Jeff Turnage, the city's attorney and president of the Mississippi Municipal Attorneys Association, drafted that resolution and has sent a boilerplate copy to cities across the state to seek their support.
The resolution calls on the Legislature to enforce sales tax collection on all retailers, including on out-of-state companies like Amazon, and to share that revenue with cities.
On Tuesday, Starkville approved the resolution. Officials discussed the possible benefits internet sales taxes, or use taxes, could generate for the city. During that discussion, Mayor Lynn Spruill acknowledged Columbus' role in getting the ball rolling.
"Columbus was instrumental in drafting the resolution, which was the one I sent to y'all that will be at the table tonight," Spruill told aldermen on Tuesday. "(City Attorney Chris Latimer) tweaked it for our benefit but yes, other cities and municipalities are trying to encourage the Legislature and governor to call a special session and have that as part of it."
Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker said the city could get an estimated $600,000 to $1 million from sales tax collections. Spruill said even a more conservative $500,000 would be "huge" for the city, which is currently considering a tax increase to keep up with rising expenses for the next fiscal year.
"That would be huge for our community and all the other communities in Mississippi that are missing out on not collecting that tax," Walker said. "I think that's a fair and just thing and hopefully our Mississippi Legislature will realize how it would be prudent if they want to stay in Jackson, that they need to make sure the municipalities are supported and that we have infrastructure that makes people want to stay in Mississippi."
West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson said his city's Board of Selectmen will take up the resolution when it meets on Tuesday. He told The Dispatch he's confident it will pass.
"We depend heavily on sales tax revenue for our general fund budget," Robinson said. "Internet sales tax, I think, in some form should come back to us. We have street and bridge problems that need to be addressed. I'm going to present that resolution to the board, which I'm sure they'll pass unanimously, requesting that the governor and Legislature share some of the proceeds."
On Monday, the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors approved a Mississippi Association of Supervisors Resolution asking the Legislature to consider sharing online sales tax revenue with counties. The state doesn't currently share any sales tax revenue -- from online or in-person sales -- directly with counties.
Board Attorney Rob Roberson, who also represents District 43 in the state House of Representatives, presented the resolution to supervisors and encouraged them to pass it.
"I'll be very honest with you, I think it's a great idea from a legislative standpoint because it would give you additional money for Longview Road and some other roads that desperately need this," he said.
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors Harry Sanders said his board also approved a similar resolution on Monday. Sanders said that he'd support diversion of internet sales tax money even if it only goes to cities, as current sales tax diversions from brick and mortar stores currently do.
"I think it's the right thing to do," Sanders said. "The retail outlets that are inside the city limit, people are taking revenue away from the city by shopping online. The city of Columbus is the bell cow of Lowndes County. If they're not successful, neither will the county be."
Several local legislators, in addition to Roberson, expressed support for giving some internet sales tax revenue to local governments.
District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus) said some discussions among the House of Representatives' Republican leadership has already given shape to a proposal, should the governor call a special session.
That proposal, he said, would see a total of 35 percent of sales tax diverted away from the state's general fund, with 15 percent to cities, 15 percent to counties and 5 percent to the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
While the resolution cities have adopted calls for the money to be untethered from any specific use, much like current sales tax revenues for cities, Chism said the House is looking to tie the money to infrastructure.
"I know they'd like to have it other ways, and while some cities and counties may do a better job than others of handling their money, we want it spent on roads and bridges," Chism said. "In spite of them wanting it to be unattached, I agree with the House leadership that it ought to be tied to roads and bridges."
District 17 Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) said he'd like to see 18 percent of internet sales tax revenue diverted to cities, which would be similar to the 18.5 percent they receive for regular sales tax revenue now, and "some" percent diverted to counties. Younger said he'd like to be tied to roads and bridges for counties, but cities might get a bit more leeway.
"It should definitely be roads and bridges for counties," he said, "and maybe we can let the cities use it for infrastructure they need for buildings, not just roads and bridges. They're the ones that have been taking the hit on this."
District 41 Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus) said he understands the need for additional local revenue, as a former city councilman. However, he said the Legislature gets many requests and has a lot to consider. Still, he said he'd be open to considering reasonable proposals.
"It needs to be looked at and it needs to be looked at carefully," he said. "If it's something manageable that can be diverted to cities for help with some of the necessities they have, I'd be all for that."
Chism said the House's proposal is similar to House Bill 722, which would have allowed diversions to cities and counties. The House passed the bill 117-0, with three representatives absent and one voting present. All of the Golden Triangle delegation supported the bill in the House. However, it died because the Senate never took it up for consideration.
A special session, Chism said, may depend on if the two houses of the Legislature can agree to something.
"The governor has reiterated that we've got to have some agreement between the Senate and House before he calls us down there," he said.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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