hed: Robertson spares only his governor from heat

JACKSON - Comes the time again when a do-nothing Mississippi Legislature begs the question: Are we capable of self-government down here?

There's one saving grace to avoid a disastrous 2007 legislative session: A reform proposal to hike the ridiculously low cigarette tax and cut the oppressive 7 percent sales tax on groceries. But it is being stonewalled by the dunderhead Senate Finance committee chairman.

Ironically, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, a late convert to the cigarette/grocery concept, is now decrying the obstinacy of Republican Sen. Tommy Robertson in denying his committee, and the Senate, an opportunity to vote on the bill.

She, it must be remembered, appointed the Moss Point senator to chair the critical Finance committee over warnings that Robertson has three DUI citations and is an admitted lapdog for business lobbyists.

Robertson's 2003 arrest for driving under influence of alcohol (he had been convicted in one previous DUI arrest) is particularly odoriferous. It took place on the campus at Ole Miss in the Alumni House parking lot after a football game when he endangered the lives of several Texas Tech students with his vehicle.

He contested his arrest by campus police in the Oxford City Court and after several months of delays its outcome faded from view, amid speculation university officials were reluctant to alienate a powerful senator.

Old tobacco cronies

Robertson talks about sparing the Senate from a blood-letting by pocketing the cig/grocery bill. But he is really sparing his Republican boss, Gov. Haley Barbour, from taking the heat for axing the most monumental state tax reform in many years, whose cig tax increase happens to step on the toes of his old cronies in the tobacco industry.

Barbour's mantra is that he's against raising anybody's taxes. The question must be asked: Who is he protecting? Certainly it is not the little people of this state, the families at the lower end of the income scale. His anti-tax pledge didn't keep him from raising the bed tax in nursing homes, and attempting to raise the tax on hospitals.

Mississippi consumers pay 80 percent of the state's tax revenues, business only 20 percent. That means state services are largely supported out of the pockets of working people. Obviously Barbour wants to keep it that way, and Robertson wants to help him.

The cig/grocery Senate measure pigeonholed by Robertson and one passed overwhelmingly by the House last week (and pending in the Senate) would up the tobacco tax from 18 cents to $1 per pack and cut in half the 7 cent sales tax rate on groceries.

Long overdue equalizer

Newspapers have labeled it as the "tax swap" bill. I look at it in a different way: as the first step in a long-overdue equalization of the state tax burden away from heavy dependence on consumer taxes, especially the highly regressive sales tax.

For years I've argued against Mississippi's policy of taxing food/groceries at the full 7 cent gross sales tax rate. But it never got on the state political radar until Democrat Dick Molpus picked it up as an issue in his 1995 gubernatorial bid. Sadly, Molpus got nowhere with it.

Since then, there's been a surge of public interest in it, as more writers and newspapers have picked it up as a prime issue. As arguably the nation's poorest state, Mississippi's tax system makes no sense by placing the heaviest burden on the most regressive tax of all, the gross sales tax.

The Stennis Institute study of tobacco and food policy options shows low income consumers spend three times more of their total budget on food at home than do higher income groups. Mississippi, the study confirms, is one of only three states that applies its full sales tax rate to groceries, with no offsetting relief for poorest families.

The study shows only half of Mississippi's 290,000 "working poor" eligible for federal food stamps apply for them, debunking the argument that a sales tax cut on groceries would not be of significant help to low income families.

In times past there's been a subtle racial message in Mississippi lawmakers' policy of keeping sales taxes high and income taxes low. The unspoken theory is that the only tax most black people pay is the sales tax.

Our economy and distribution of wealth have changed markedly in the past several decades and we have seen, for one thing, the rise of a black middle class that never existed before.

The point here is that equalization of the state tax burden would necessarily shift the structure to have the upper income class carry a larger share of the revenue burden. The 5 percent top income tax bracket needs to be put back to 6 percent, where it had been 30 years ago, and corporations shouldn't pay only the same income tax rate as individuals.

Maybe corporations and wealthier folks are the ones Haley Barbour means in his "no tax" theme song.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.

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