LOCAL LEGISLATORS SPEAK: Initiative, income tax possible issues for Mississippi Legislature

Published 6:07 pm Friday, January 6, 2023

With the Mississippi Legislature getting ready to enter its second week, some holdovers from the 2022 session could be back on the table.

The Legislature closed 2022 with some unfinished business in the form of a revised ballot initiative bill that failed to clear both houses before the session ended and the elimination of the state’s income tax.

The House and Senate failed to reach an agreement on a ballot initiative bill, to replace the present law that was struck down by the Mississippi Supreme Court in a suit filed by the city of Madison to overturn Initiative 65. In November 2020, voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative Measure 65, a citizen-driven ballot initiative. Initiative 65 would have amended the Mississippi Constitution to create a state medical marijuana program. However, on May 14, 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned Initiative 65, ruling that the state election law governing voter ballot initiatives was out-of-date and unworkable.

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The court ruled the petitioners for the initiative failed to meet the signature requirements under the present law, which named five congressional districts. Mississippi has since lost a district, giving it four congressional districts.

The House and Senate failed to reach a compromise on a revised bill before the 2022 session ended.

“It was one of the issues we tried to tackle last year that we just couldn’t come to a consensus on,” said Dist. 54 Rep. Kevin Ford, R-Vicksburg. “I support the House version that we supported last year. We passed it overwhelmingly out of the House.”

The problem, Ford said, was the present law defined the number of representatives “and it wasn’t flexible to say whatever the sitting number of representatives would be. What we did was take that rule away, and there’s a little bit of fighting over the number of signatures required.”

Dist. 55 Rep. Oscar Denton, D-Vicksburg, said he agrees with the Mississippi Black Legislative Caucus, which supports some form of ensuring people have the right to get signatures and get issues on the ballot.

“We want to make it easier for people to vote, not hinder the people from voting; make it easier for people to vote. Why not have early voting to get more people out to the polls to vote?” he said.

INCOME TAX UPDATE

The House’s attempt to make Mississippi the 10th state without an income tax failed to gather sufficient legislative support to pass in 2022.

Instead, the Legislature passed a tax relief bill that will eliminate the 4-percent tax on income from $5,000 to $10,000 starting in 2023 and gradually move to a flat tax for the state. Eventually, Mississippi will have the lowest income tax in the country.

Ford said the income tax will be discussed through the legislative process.

“We got a good bit last year — that was very welcome to have the largest tax cut in Mississippi’s history, which I fully supported and I supported putting us on a path to no income tax. It’s just how we do it,” he said.

The problem legislators are facing now, Ford said, “Is even though our funds are at the highest level they’ve ever been, we do have a recession coming and we don’t want to do anything that requires us to put taxes back on.

“We’re looking through that prism; we have over $1 billion that we do not have allocated that is going to be there for one-time expenditures and the question is how aggressive with that money do we get,” he added.

While he agrees the income tax will be discussed, Denton said, “Personally, I never did think eliminating the income tax was a good deal for us. We’re the poorest state in the union; I think we need funds. If we eliminate the income tax, that money’s going to have to be made up somewhere.”

With the possibility of a recession, said State Sen. Briggs Hopson III, R-Vicksburg, “You need to be guarded about what you do financially. I think the budget and the spending of citizens’ tax dollars are of the utmost importance and I think it’s the biggest job we have, year in and year out.”

ARPA ALLOCATIONS

Besides the income tax and initiative issues, the Legislature will be looking at allocating $250 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Hopson said hearings on the ARPA funds should begin soon and will cover two things: what the Legislature did last year to see how that is working, and where the dollars need to go this year if anything needs to be fixed or tightened a bit.

Ford said he is also looking at trying to get a portion of $3 billion in undedicated state funds for site preparation for the new Warren County Jail.

In a related matter, Hopson said he has filed a local and private, or special bill to extend the loan payback for the new jail to 30 years.

IN OTHER ISSUES

• Denton said the Mississippi Black Legislative Caucus is interested in health care issues and mental health issues, including Medicaid expansion, which previous governors and some legislators oppose.

“Medicaid expansion would cure a lot of those problems,” he said. “We (the caucus) want to try and impress upon the people that we support expanding Medicaid.”

“We also need to do something to shore up our rural hospitals,” Denton said. “These hospitals closing are affecting people’s lives.”

He added he also supports the broadband initiative to increase the availability of Internet service.

• Hopson said more needs to be done to improve the state’s child protective services.

“I’m doing more research,” he said. “I want to make sure that we’ve got it doing the work it’s commissioned to do and the best work that it can do. We’ve got some issues at CPS that we need to shore up and need to strengthen. We started that process last year, but I think we’ve got more work to do.”

On Medicaid, Hopson said he will be meeting with hospital and healthcare officials about improving options for healthcare services.

“I don’t think there’s any silver bullet helping health care, but one or two or a combination and maybe other items can be addressed.

Hopson said he will file a bill to remove the state portion of the car tag tax which will reduce the cost of car tags. The legislation will not affect county revenue, he said, but would remove the amount that goes to the state.

“There are two things I’m hopeful and excited about,” he said. “The state did not incur any debt during FY 2022; we didn’t have a bond bill. I look to do that again. I think that’s one of the benefits of having some additional funds. We are at a place where we shouldn’t have to incur any additional debt for projects around the state.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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