JACKSON — Gov. Haley Barbour would seem to have won Round One with Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck in stopping her from leading a move to reduce grocery sales taxes.

With Tuck unable to muster the votes to override Barbour's veto of her original effort to totally eliminate the state's 7 percent sales tax on groceries while raising the cigarette excise tax to $1 a pack, the term-limited lieutenant governor and her backers were forced to resort to Plan B.

Now proponents of cutting Mississippi's sales tax on groceries and raising Mississippi's excise tax on cigarettes were trying a compromise bill as the deadline approached this week for action on tax bills originating in each of the respective legislative chambers.

The Senate bill would cut the state's sales tax on unprepared foods from 7 percent to 3.5 percent effective July 1 while at the same time raising the cigarette tax from 18 cents per pack to 80 cents per pack. A similar House measure is identical other than it raises the cigarette tax to $1 a pack.

Tuck told the press that the "Senate was one or two votes short" of the two-thirds margin needed to override Barbour's veto.

Mississippi currently charges families 7 percent sales tax on food, the highest such tax in the United States, while letting tobacco companies sell their wares with a tax of only 18 cents a pack, the second-lowest cigarette tax in the country.

As I've written for years now, the best argument for eliminating Mississippi's sales tax on food is that it's a regressive tax that really punishes the poor. Charging the poorest people in America the highest tax on groceries in America has never been very smart or very moral. That's particularly so when Gov. Barbour and legislators go to such lengths to keep cigarette taxes cheap.

It's difficult to imagine which one of these concepts makes the least sense — charging the poorest people in the country the highest sales tax on groceries in the country. And don't give me the "they get food stamps" argument.

Food stamps help, to be sure. But with poverty as pervasive as Mississippi's, it's not a total solution.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data from the Bush administration notes that in Mississippi, only about a third of the people who qualify for food stamps actually utilize them. Why?

That an easy answer. There are a lot of elderly Mississippians who are too proud to use food stamps and try to subsist on what little income they have.

There are also at-risk Mississippians who have trouble with the bureaucracy. And, let's face it, there are also some who simply don't go to the trouble out of sloth or laziness.

It's so easy for politicians to interject the stereotypical "welfare queen" into this equation — but they do so at their own political risk. The facts are that the majority of food stamp recipients, Medicaid recipients and other social services are elderly white women.

Mississippi hasn't undertaken any fundamental tax equity steps in decades. Since 1932, Mississippi has ridden the backs of the working poor to keep property, income and corporate income taxes artificially low while keeping regressive, punitive sales taxes high.

So here we go again, folks. Is Barbour really going to address the people of Mississippi again with a straight face and tell us that low cigarette taxes are more advantageous to Mississippi's future than giving the working poor a small tax break on their groceries?

This fight has never been about what was good for average Mississippi taxpayers. It's been a mean, spiteful little political fight that ignored the poor.

Sid Salter of Forest is Perspective editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.

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