Municipal officials were in Jackson last week on what will likely be a fruitless pursuit. They want the Legislature to allow voters in their cities to levy a special sales tax of up to 1 percent on themselves to pay for infrastructure improvements, if 60 percent approve.
This is an eminently reasonable proposition. There is really no compelling argument against letting a super-majority of citizens in a community determine for themselves the level of taxation they are willing to shoulder to pay for specific projects, especially when it comes to repairing crumbling streets, water and sewer and other critical components of city life.
But rationality has never ruled the legislative world. This legislation will probably go nowhere in the 2014 session.
The reason is simple: People who live near but outside municipalities don’t want to have to pay a tax they don’t get to vote on. And legislators will respond to pressure not to raise their taxes, however indirectly.
At first glance, this position might appear to have some validity. “Taxation without representation” is an easy rallying cry.
But while “using services without paying for them” doesn’t have quite as good a ring to it, it certainly applies.
Each day, cities in Mississippi swell in population as people from outside their borders come to work, play and shop. They use city streets and other services, adding to their wear and tear, but the cost of building and maintaining them rests largely with city residents themselves.
Yes, a portion of the sales tax on purchases by non-city residents is sent back to cities to help with their budgets. But that same level of tax would be paid by the non-city residents outside the municipal borders anyway.
Yes, people from outside a city pay tourism taxes levied by municipalities, and in the occasional case of something like Tupelo’s quarter-cent water supply tax, they actual help directly fund some of the services they use when in the city. But for the most part, people who work in or visit a city carry little of the load of paying for its services.
In the case of larger cities like Tupelo, the regional economy is heavily dependent on a healthy hub. Is it really too much to ask those who benefit when a city’s roads, bridges, drainage and water-sewer systems are in good shape to help pay for them – at a much lower proportion than city residents who must also pay property taxes?
Of course, one could say to other cities clamoring for the opportunity to place a special tax before the voters that they should follow Tupelo’s lead and levy a special property tax for infrastructure, as Tupelo has done for 23 years with the Major Thoroughfare Program. Tupelo voters first approved the 10-mill tax in 1991, which comes up for renewal every five years, and they’ve liked the results so much that they’ve overwhelmingly renewed it four times since.
No one outside the city objects to that tax, since no one outside the city has to pay it.
Yet better roads to get around town to jobs or out to the mall to shop are a direct benefit to non-Tupelo residents.
It’s no guarantee, of course, that voters in any given city would opt to pay more to meet pressing needs. In just the last year, both Saltillo and Corinth voters have rejected property tax increases for road programs similar in approach to Tupelo’s. A sales tax probably would have met the same fate.
But if city officials can make a convincing case and voters agree, why shouldn’t they be able to determine how and what to pay for on their own?
Mississippi legislators don’t look kindly toward federal intrusiveness into state decisions. Why not be consistent and say to municipal governments that we won’t stand in your way if this is what your voters want to do?
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.