OUR OPINION: Cut out middle man on local tax decisions

By NEMS Daily Journal

In the late 1980s, Tupelo faced a potentially growth-stopping problem. The underground aquifer from which its water supply came was depleted, threatening future industrial and residential growth.
The city developed a plan for an alternative water supply – from the Tombigbee River via an 18-mile pipeline. Tupelo didn’t have the revenues to pay for such a huge project, so it asked the Legislature to authorize a 1-cent sales tax levy in the city.
Lawmakers balked, and eventually after a regional authority was formed, a referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax was authorized. It passed with 96 percent of the vote, but it took two legislative sessions to make it happen.
That episode stands as a prime example of why communities need the option of levying special sales taxes when their futures literally depend on it. But the Legislature has always jealously guarded its prerogative to approve every local levy before it allows the voters to do so.
This middle-man approach should be changed.
Legislation to allow cities to levy their own sales taxes has been rejected annually since the 1980s. The Legislature occasionally allows local options, usually for tourism-related purposes such as Tupelo’s hotel and restaurant sales tax.
But what’s wrong with giving cities the authority to make the case before their voters for a local sales tax without coming hat-in-hand to the Legislature? Local government, after all, is government closest to the people.
This year, the Mississippi Municipal League has gotten some traction in the House on a bill that would allow cities to decide for themselves whether to levy a 1-cent sales tax for specific projects. The tax would require 60 percent voter approval and would end when the project was paid for.
Even in this era of tax aversion, if a good case can be made for a local project and its tangible benefits are clear, most citizens will hear it out and in many cases support it. A clear example is Tupelo’s Major Thoroughfare program with its 10-mill tax that in 2011 was approved for another five years with 83 percent of the vote.
Local citizens should be able to decide whether they want to raise their own taxes for local needs without having to ask the Legislature for permission.