Mississippi Libertarians rally support for restaurant tax referendum

Danny Bedwell asks a pedestrian to sign a petition in Lowndes County, Miss.

Libertarians in Lowndes County, Miss., are working to get a referendum on the ballot to nullify a 2 percent restaurant sales tax. From The Dispatch on Feb 21, 2019:

As a first- and second-grade teacher, Frieda Hallman doesn’t have much time to cook. She eats out pretty much every day, a habit that she believes could cost her more than she’s willing to pay when the 2-percent restaurant sales tax takes effect March 1.

That’s why she is working with five other members of the Libertarian Party of Lowndes County to circulate a petition calling for a referendum — a public vote — on the sales tax.

“Some people say (2 percent) isn’t much,” she said. “But when you eat out every day, it is significant.”

The 2-percent restaurant sales tax will only be collected in the Columbus city limits at businesses where annual prepared food and beverage sales are at least $100,000. However, city residents have the option to force a referendum on the tax by delivering a petition to City Hall no later than 5 p.m. Feb. 25. That petition must include signatures from at least 2,000 city residents who are registered voters. If the tax is forced to a vote, it would require 60-percent voter approval to pass.

So far, Hallman estimates she and other volunteers have collected close to 700 petition signatures. Since she works a day job, she often goes out on weekends to solicit signatures. She has even asked the owners of several restaurants if she could ask for signatures outside their businesses.

“They don’t want the tax because they lose business,” she said. “Their business that comes from seniors, they lose it because (seniors) live on a fixed income, so any little tax makes it more expensive to eat out.”

Food and drink costs aside, Hallman and Libertarian Party of Lowndes County chairman Danny Bedwell also take issue with the fact that the tax was brought to the Legislature before city residents got to have a say.

In 1986, when the tax was first implemented, residents voted to approve the tax county-wide. However, the tax set to take effect March 1 will only be collected within the city limits, something Bedwell believes should prompt a separate, city-wide vote by only those that would be paying the tax.

“(In the 1980s), people in Artesia, Caledonia, Crawford, New Hope, they all voted ‘yes’ for the tax,” he said. “But now, that shouldn’t be allowed. Putting the tax in place should’ve been on the ballot to begin with.”

The county-wide tax expired in June 2018 after the Legislature did not renew it, which prompted an effort to re-establish it as a citywide tax that will still have a county-wide impact.

Bedwell believes the city and county have “no business” taking in taxpayer money to pay for things like construction at Propst Park and festivals. If the tax is implemented, Columbus will receive $400,000 annually from collections, and Lowndes County $300,000, for recreation, while the Golden Triangle Development LINK will get $250,000 each year for economic development efforts. The rest of the revenue will fund the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau’s tourism efforts.

“When did entertainment become something taxpayers needed to spend their money on?” he asked.

CVB CEO Nancy Carpenter believes those against the restaurant tax “don’t see the value” in it.

“Evidently, there are some people that don’t understand all the positive things it’s done for our community,” she said. “We’d be happy to share that data with them. It’s had a very positive impact on the city.”

Columbus Mayor Robert Smith agrees.

“(People) have a right to sign a petition, but the 2-percent sales tax is good for the city, county, CVB and citizens of Columbus,” he said. “Why would a citizen not cooperate and be happy for the 2-percent (tax) to be in existence?

“It’s not like we can take the money and mismanage it,” he added. “We’ve already set the plan for the $400,000 we receive to finish Propst Park. … And look at what the LINK does for the city and the county.”

However, Bedwell worries that the opposite is true and that city officials will mismanage the money. He thinks the only people that want the tax are the ones who benefit from it.

“There’s a handful of people who support this tax, and those are the people spending it,” he said.

Hallman thinks the city is asking for too much taxpayer money, first with the 2-percent, and then with the proposed 1-percent addition to the tax, which hasn’t yet reached a committee in Jackson for legislative consideration, for Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater operations.

“And the 1-percent tax, oh my God,” she said. “If the mayor had been a better steward with the money he had, (the tax) might not be laughable.”