Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for governor, talks about jobs and taxes during a news conference at Conkrete Sneaker Boutique in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, June 22, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley on Thursday said Republican Gov. Tate Reeves should call lawmakers back to the state Capitol for a special legislative session to abolish Mississippi’s sales tax on groceries, the highest such tax in the nation.

Presley, north Mississippi’s utility commissioner, believes the 7% tax on food should be eliminated because it’s a harsh policy that forces people on all ends of the economic spectrum to pay extra for a basic necessity like food.

“At a time in which Mississippians are struggling, we know that this cost is hurting folks, and particularly working families who are out there trying to make ends meet and meet that family budget,” Presley said.  

Both of Mississippi’s leading candidates for governor want to reduce state taxes. Reeves continues to advocate for abolishing the state income tax, and Presley wants to eliminate the state’s tax on food and cut fees on car tags in half.

Lawmakers are typically in the capital city for their regular session from early January to April. After lawmakers adjourn their session, they cannot reconvene at any point during the year to pass new laws unless the governor calls them back to Jackson for a special session. 

The state Constitution grants the governor power to set the terms of a special session. Reeves did not respond to a request for comment about Presley’s Thursday comments. Reeves in his first term has only called one special legislative session, to approve $247 million in state incentives for an aluminum mill. 

Lawmakers last year significantly reduced the individual income tax, and once it’s fully implemented, Mississippi will have a flat 4% tax on all earned income over $10,000. But Reeves believes that tax should be gone entirely. 

“I pushed to eliminate our state income tax, and we’ve achieved the largest tax cut in state history,” Reeves said in Gulfport earlier this month. “And we can do more because this is Mississippi’s time.”  

The Republican candidate’s campaign, however, has said Reeves would be open to any type of tax cut the Legislature passes, including reducing the grocery tax. 

But Presley said that the governor’s willingness wasn’t enough and excoriated him for not openly advocating on abolishing the tax.

“Where have you been for 12 years?” Presley asked. “Have you been that busy at fundraisers that you didn’t know that people wanted their grocery tax eliminated?” 

The different tax cut policies come at a time when Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill into law in the state that lowers its grocery tax from 4% to 3%. The legislation calls for the tax to decrease even further if specific growth metrics are met to offset the tax reduction, according to the Associated Press. 

Both tax cut plans from Reeves and Presley would reduce the amount of revenue the state collects each year. 

The state’s income tax accounts for over $2.4 billion in the general fund, roughly one-third of its total general budget. 

Reeves has said in previous remarks that if the income tax were abolished, the increase in economic investment and consumer spending would make up for the decrease in income tax collections.

It’s unclear how much money Mississippi collects from the grocery tax because the Mississippi Department of Revenue, the state’s tax collection agency, doesn’t precisely track that data. 

A spokesperson for the department previously told Mississippi Today there were over $6 billion in grocery sales during the past fiscal year, which they estimated to have generated around $424.8 million in taxes. Of that amount, over $305 million is believed to have gone to the state’s general fund. 

Presley did not substantively answer questions about how state government would make up the difference if the grocery tax were eliminated but believed state leaders could find necessary funds to plug the shortfall if they determined that tax cut was a legislative priority.

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.