Anybody who has ever seen a picture of Mississippi Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, will immediately know his face. His peculiar facial hair is almost a warning, “As far as politics, go, this man gets excited about precisely all the wrong things.”
Back in January, Rep. Smith and his mustache submitted HB 991 to the Ways and Means Committee. Two months later, Gov. Phil Bryant, without hesitation, I imagine, signed it. The bill allows county and municipal governments to put a call into the Mississippi Department of Revenue and ask them to garnish part or all of your state tax refund for certain outstanding debts. These debts could include things like water bills, unpaid local taxes, liens or even lowly trash collection fees.
Since the city of Jackson alone is looking at more than $50 million in unpaid water bills, it’s a sure guess what city residents might be first to get a surprise next year after HB 991 officially becomes law this July. Around that same time, unwary residents (targets, if you will), will learn about a little 25 percent collection-assistance fee the state has also levied upon them.
Sadly, the tax grab may not apply to delinquent apartment complex owners or defunct Jackson restaurants who managed to run up thousands of dollars on individual water bills. These customers don’t often even see a tax refund—at least, not a legitimate one. No, no. The people they’re going after are the ones who qualify for refunds. This will, undoubtedly, include single mothers and impoverished families, some of whom managed to be eligible only by virtue of their extreme poverty or their lopsided income-to-family-size-ratio.
The Mississippi Department of Revenue can already grab your state tax refund for other things, like unpaid state student loans, community college fees and child support. These new debts simply get heaped upon the other garnishment qualifiers. As The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects has already reported, a debtor will have 30 days to contest the garnishment and get a hearing in county circuit court. From there, any decision will boil down to how well you kept receipts and records throughout the year and how nice your judge is. This is gravely disappointing because the kind of people who will be hit hardest by this—young, single mothers—will be the very ones with the fewest resources to do battle in court. Unlike in a criminal trial, there will be no public-financed solicitor working on your behalf. It’ll just be you and the folks against you.
Sen. Debra Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, voted against the bill in the Senate, arguing the bill was not fair in a society where only a few individuals have the resources to hire a Certified Public Accountant. The rest of us, meanwhile, sweat alone over our computer at tax time then cover our eyes and hit the “send” button, praying, wishing, hoping for the best. Most working class folks who actually receive tax refunds count on the money for a number of reasons. State legislature should not be making a decision on what happens to the hard-earned pay of citizens.
Persis Yu is the director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. Yu, who has studied the dynamics of tax time refunds, told The Lighthouse this week that grabbing any refund is a reversal of the very poverty-fighting benefits that refunds were designed to provide. She added these programs generally provide the most benefit to children.
“Refund programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit are actually a really successful program that lifts kids out of poverty. It literally puts money into poor people’s pockets. It immediately brings kids out of poverty and improves the educational outcomes for these children. To just take it because somebody owes the government money seems very backward,” Yu said. “What would be more beneficial is if you could keep people out of poverty and keep them in a job.”
Keeping that job means having a car that runs, as well as adequate childcare, both of which can be impacted by April returns. Yu said she had collected multiple accounts of young parents at risk of losing their transportation because they had been banking on a tax-time payoff to repair their broken down cars. Others had been planning on paying the bills they owed to their child-care worker. Without a car or a babysitter, a young parent stands a greater chance of sitting at home rather than generating revenue for local government and keeping a roof over her head.
This is yet another harsh reminder of the days we’re living in, another dose of disgusting placebo we’re forced to swallow: One in five children are now living in extreme poverty, with that number mushrooming within the last decade, according to NPR.