Officer Ebony Pinson operates the doors from inside the cell block control room at the Lee County Jail.

TUPELO • A bill that would allow the Lee County Board of Supervisors to seek voter approval for higher local sales tax won an initial Senate vote this week, but its chances of becoming law look bleak.

The state Senate on Wednesday evening narrowly passed Senate Bill 3091, which would allow the Lee County supervisors to place a potential sales tax increase of 3/4 of a percent on the 2023 ballot for approval by voters.

“We’re voting to empower an elected board to offer to the people the ability to tax themselves for certain projects,” said Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, the chair of the Senate Local and Private Committee.

Then, on Thursday, Northeast Mississippi lawmaker Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, entered a motion to reconsider. That motion must be defeated before the legislation can proceed to House — where it will almost certainly die.

Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, told the Daily Journal on Thursday that the chairman of the House Local and Private Committee — Rep. Manly Barton, R-Moss Point — will not bring the bill up for consideration. Most — if not all — of Lee County's House delegation have voiced skepticism about the legislation.

McMahan: Tax bill not necessarily linked to jail

The bill would require supervisors to specify projects that would be funded through the sales tax increase, and the board of supervisors has been clear in their public statements that they want to build a new jail with the new sales tax revenue, though other ideas, including library renovations, have been proposed.

Despite these statements, McMahan sought to downplay the links between the bill he introduced and the deliberations over a new jail.

"There are some people down here who are spreading the misinformation that the bill is to build a jail," McMahan said Thursday. "I’m not going to tell you the bill is for a jail because I don’t know what’s going to be on the ballot in two years."

Several NE Mississippi lawmakers oppose bill

The bill in question dealt with revenue, so it needed to pass the chamber with a three-fifths-majority vote. The Senate passed the bill 23-15, putting it a mere one vote ahead of the needed margin for approval.

Several Northeast Mississippi lawmakers joined Sen. Hob Bryan, R-Amory, who also represents part of Lee County, in voting against the bill, making the legislation unusually divisive on its home turf. 

McMahan represents a large portion of Lee County in the Senate, and he filed the bill earlier this month after all five county supervisors signed onto a letter in January asking for the legislation to be introduced.

However, Bryan, who represents portions of Lee, Itawamba and Monroe counties, spoke against the bill from the floor before voting against it. He suggested the precedent would spur every county in the state to ask the Legislature for a local option sales tax.

He also questioned whether a sales tax increase is an appropriate mechanism to fund the construction of a new jail and criticized the potential reach of the tax increase.

"The legislation is being promoted as a way of making people from outside of Lee County pay for the Lee County Jail," Bryan said on the Senate floor.

This is likely a reference to a statement made to the Daily Journal by District 5 Supervisor Billy Joe Holland, who is the current board of supervisors president. 

“If someone from Itawamba County comes in and buys a Coca-Cola, they’re helping us build a jail,” Holland told the Daily Journal last month.

Lee County is known for being the economic hub of Northeast Mississippi and often brings in workers and visitors from around the state.

But Bryan questioned why Lee County, a more economically prosperous area of the state, needed to tax people coming into the county to help fund the facility. He pointed to the regressive nature of sales taxes, which capture a larger proportion of poor people's income than wealthier people's income.

“In other words, the poorest people in the poorest part of the state would be subsidizing jails in more affluent parts,” Bryan said.

McMahan defended a sales tax, calling it “the fairest tax there is.”

McMahan: Up to supervisors to lobby for bill

Speaking to the Daily Journal on Thursday, McMahan added that he believes a House bill to eliminate the income tax and raise sales taxes statewide has "clouded" the issue.

"Yes, I think that complicated it, and I think that is why some of the House members oppose it," said McMahan, who added that he supports the elimination of the income tax but wants more time to gather input on the matter.

The second-term senator said he advised supervisors to lay the issue aside until next session, but Holland wanted McMahan to proceed.

"The bill is not mine. The bill belongs to the Lee County Board of Supervisors," McMahan said.

McMahan also said he has not lobbied House members on behalf of the bill.

"The Lee County Board of Supervisors, it’s their job to lobby the representatives," McMahan said.

The county supervisors, the Lee County sheriff and several officials in the city of Tupelo have long dealt with the quandary over when a new jail should be constructed and how it should be funded, without reaching any consensus.

The county supervisors hired an independent consultant last year to give recommendations on how the county should proceed with a jail. He’s expected to give his initial report to the supervisors within the next few weeks.

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