Lawmakers Take on Capitol Complexity, ‘Amazon’ Sales Tax and Craft Breweries | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Lawmakers Take on Capitol Complexity, ‘Amazon’ Sales Tax and Craft Breweries

Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, was able to garner enough votes in the House on his second try to pass the Internet sales-tax bill on Feb. 6.

Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, was able to garner enough votes in the House on his second try to pass the Internet sales-tax bill on Feb. 6. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

The City of Jackson could receive financial support for its infrastructure this year, but how that will work varies on both ends of the statehouse. The Senate and House versions of Jackson infrastructure bills look different this year.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, authored Senate Bill 2893, which would give the Department of Finance and Administration the authority to create a committee of local leaders to develop a plan to administer funds to the capital city for infrastructure improvement projects. The Senate has not taken that bill up for a vote as of press time—which it must do by Feb. 9 for it to stay alive.

The House took an entirely different approach to the bill. On Feb. 1, Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, took up House Bill 1226, which defines the Capitol Complex District and provides additional funding for infrastructure improvements in the set area. The southernmost part of the district begins on South Street, expanding west only far enough to include Jackson State University. The district spreads north into Fondren, stopping at Mitchell Avenue and spreads east across Interstate 55 to Ridgewood Road.

Baker explained that the bill would add an additional 12.5-percent sales-tax revenue collected on business activities inside the city in order to fund the infrastructure. HB 1226 omits the special judge last year's legislation included, Baker said, but it does say the Department of Finance and Administration would enforce all laws in the district including "arrests for any violation of any law in the state of Mississippi." The bill says DFA can appoint any "person or persons" to enforce the laws, but be "concurrent with the jurisdiction of the City of Jackson."

Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, questioned the legislation, insisting that not all the representatives from Jackson were approached about the proposal. Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said he was the most concerned about fixing the infrastructure and the crime, or what he called the "perceived crime" in the district, specifically citing break-ins into lawmakers' cars. He said his car had been broken into four times in his time as a lawmaker.

Wooten called leaving Jackson lawmakers out of its infrastructure conversation a "disrespectful move." The legislation passed by a vote of 98-23, with some Jackson lawmakers voting in its favor, and Wooten held it on a motion to reconsider. The bill had not passed to the Senate by press time.

Internet Tax Still Alive

The rumored online sales-tax bill caused an uproar last week in the House of Representatives. Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, who voiced his support for enforcing the state's use tax last summer, says Mississippi is following the leads of Colorado, Alabama and other states. Mississippi's brick-and-mortar stores charge use taxes, but the State does not collect the funds on out-of-state or online retailers for the same sales. That means a Mississippian can potentially go online and buy a coat from an online retailer at a seemingly cheaper price than in a store.

Technically, consumers are supposed to report online purchases on their state tax forms, but few do. House Bill 480 allows the state to force out-of-state businesses that don't have a physical location or store in the state who make "retail sales of tangible personal property into this state and has a substantial economic presence in this state by such seller's retail sales of tangible personal property sold into this state exceeding $250,000" to collect the tax.

Most consumers do not report the lack of taxation on online purchases, however, and states lose potential revenue from online retailers as a consequence. A study from the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning found that the State could have obtained between $105 million to $122 million if it forced online retailers to collect the tax in 2016. Amazon has already agreed to collect the tax in the state, set to start on Feb. 1. The Department of Revenue announced the news on its Facebook page last month, but this bill would force other retailers to follow suit.

HB 480 would divert revenue from the use tax "to use on the repair, maintenance and reconstruction of roads, streets and bridges," a measure representatives vocally supported. The House passed the legislation 77-40, but not without an outcry from the conservative side of the Republican aisle. Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, lambasted the House for "raising taxes," despite Lamar's insistence that the tax is already on the books, but not all retailers are paying it.

"I believe the states should have the power to enforce their own taxes," Lamar told the House lawmakers.

The Americans for Prosperity Mississippi affiliate released a statement opposing the bill.

"The House's passage of the internet sales-tax bill, HB 480, will increase the amount of taxes Mississippians pay. It is an unfortunate and unconstitutional self-inflicted wound that goes against the advice the Legislature received from their own invited tax experts this summer," AFP Mississippi Director Russ Latino said.

"The quest to find more government revenue 'without raising taxes' is a bandaid that doesn't solve anything. The more we take from working families, the worse off our economy will be. We understand the desire to address the changing economy and level the playing field, but this bill doesn't get us there, and instead risks stunting our state's economic growth even further."

After HB 480 passed, some lawmakers held it on a motion to reconsider. When Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, tried to bring the bill up in order to pass it to the Senate late last week, a loud cry from mainly Republicans foiled that plan and sent it to the bottom of the House's calendar. By Monday, however, lawmakers either had a change of heart or lost interest because the House voted to send it to the Senate.

Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected].

Other Bills to Watch

House Bill 1322: Craft Breweries Score Victory

The legislation to allow craft breweries to sell product on their premises passed the House last week and now will have to pass through committee in the Senate to stay alive. Rep. Henry Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, presented the bill on the floor and said lawmakers worked with several craft breweries around the state to come to a consensus on the bill and its limitations.

House Bill 1322 would allow any craft brewery that produces 60,000 barrels of light beer or wine to sell products on-site—within limits. Breweries cannot sell more than 576 ounces, or around two cases, Zuber said, of beer on the premises and cannot sell more than 10 percent of their product there. Local brewery Lucky Town Brewery has lobbied for this bill in the past. It passed the House easily last week.

House Bill 228: Early Voting

The legislation to allow Mississippians to vote 14 days before Election Day passed the House last week after lively discussion. The bill tightens absentee-voting laws, in favor of permanent voting before Election

Day. Current state law allows a Mississippian to vote absentee and then cast a vote on Election Day to cancel out their initial absentee vote. HB 228 would help streamline and tighten up the state's early voting laws. Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, held the bill on a motion to reconsider. The House had not acted on it by press time.

Senate Bill 2567: Shifting Health to Governor Control

The state health, mental-health and rehabilitation services departments would move under the governor's governance if this bill becomes law. 
Currently, boards govern all three of these state agencies, which would shift to advisory boards if this bill becomes law. Board members have sounded the alarm on Senate Bill 2567, and the Senate had not considered the bill on the floor by press time.

Thursday, Feb. 9, is the deadline for original floor action on bills, and Monday, Feb. 13, is the deadline for bills held on motions to reconsider to get out of the House or the Senate. Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @arielle_amara.

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