Gov. Tate Reeves speaks during the 2023 Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 27, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Some see the issue of cutting Mississippi’s grocery tax as a partisan divide.

After all, in three of the past four gubernatorial elections, the Democratic candidate has advocated cutting or eliminating Mississippi’s 7% sales tax on groceries while the Republican standard bearer has touted reducing the income tax.

This year Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves is again advocating for the elimination of the income tax. Brandon Presley, his Democratic opponent, wants to eliminate the sales tax on food.

But the issue of cutting Mississippi’s highest-in-the-nation, state-imposed sales tax on groceries is not always a partisan fight. And it is definitely not a partisan issue for Mississippi’s four contiguous states.

While Mississippi politicians have argued about and flirted with cutting the grocery tax only to be stymied at some point in the process, all four of Mississippi’s neighbors have reduced or eliminated the state-imposed grocery tax. All were led at least in part by Republicans. The first to act was Louisiana, where the tax was eliminated in 2003 under Republican Gov. Mike Foster.

Earlier this year, Alabama, led by an overwhelming Republican majority in its Legislature and by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, cut its 4% state grocery tax to 3% beginning in September. The tax will be reduced by another 1% in future years and a special committee will look at the complete elimination of the tax.

Republicans and Democrats in Arkansas have worked together to cut the grocery tax to a minuscule 0.125%. In Tennessee, Republican leaders have not completely eliminated the grocery tax, but last year they imposed a one month tax holiday on grocery purchases. This year, the holiday when the sales tax on grocery purchases will be eliminated will be three months, beginning on Aug. 1.

Mississippi’s partisan divide on the grocery tax goes back to at least the 1995 gubernatorial election. Democratic Secretary of State Dick Molpus proposed reducing the grocery tax while Republican incumbent Gov. Kirk Fordice advocated for a cut in the income tax.

Molpus lost the election.

In Fordice’s second term, the Legislature did provide an income tax cut for married couples by changing the tax code so that married couples filing jointly did not pay more in state taxes than did two single people living together. That bill was authored by then-Senate Finance Chair Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

While Bryan led the effort to eliminate the so-called marriage penalty on the income tax, in recent years he has advocated for cuts to the grocery tax.

According to a Siena College/Mississippi Today poll conducted earlier this year, 58% of Mississippians say they would only vote for a candidate who supports eliminating the grocery tax, while 7% say they would only vote for a candidate opposed to eliminating the tax.

On the other hand, less than a majority — 45% — say they would only vote for a candidate who supports eliminating the income tax, while 17% would only vote for a candidate opposed to the income tax elimination.

And to illustrate that it is not necessarily a partisan issue in Mississippi, bills to cut the sales tax on food have been introduced by Republican legislators in recent years, and Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has voiced support for reducing the grocery tax.

The closest Mississippi has come to eliminating the grocery tax occurred in 2006, and that effort was led by Republicans. That year Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck stunned the Capitol when her lieutenants, at her behest, introduced legislation to eliminate the grocery tax and to offset the lost revenue by increasing the cigarette tax, which at 18 cents per pack was one of the lowest rates in the nation.

Twice, Tuck got grocery tax cut proposals through the Legislature by more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a governor’s veto. But on both occasions Republican Gov. Haley Barbour changed enough votes in the Senate to uphold his vetoes.

Barbour, a former cigarette lobbyist, gave a lot of reasons for opposing the reduction in the grocery tax, including that the grocery tax was fair because everyone had to pay it.

But not all Republicans bought that argument.

The late Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, opposed for moral reasons placing a food tax on poor people.

Nunnelee, who died in 2015 while serving in the U.S. House, told The New York Times in 2007 the sales tax on groceries “is just the most cruel tax any government can impose.”

Before his term ended, Barbour eventually acquiesced to an increase in the cigarette tax, but he never yielded in his opposition to cutting the grocery tax.

Since then, there have been enough Republicans in leadership opposed to cutting the grocery tax to ensure it did not happen. But the tax cut was not opposed by all Republicans.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.