A piece of legislation directed at the city of Olive Branch has caused some tension between two DeSoto County legislators.
Senate Bill 2986 would enable a referendum for the citizens of Olive Branch to vote on during the November general election. If passed, a one percent tax would be levied on hotels and motels, with the revenue it generates going to tourism and park development. Sixty percent of voters would have to approve the measure for it to pass.
When a bill goes through the legislature that is directed at a certain municipality, all members of the local committees have to approve it for the bill to be taken up in their respective chambers. SB 2986 was golden in the upper chamber, having been authored by Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R-19) and co-authored by Sen. Michael McLendon (R-1) and Sen. David Parker (R-2). It was supported by the county’s House members too, except for one hold out who derailed the whole process, Rep. Dana Criswell (R-6).
“Because of his stance, I can get it passed through the Senate but can’t get it taken up in the House,” Blackwell said.
A frustrated Blackwell then decided to draw attention to the issue by naming the bill after the man who opposed it, dubbing SB 2986 the “Dana Criswell Municipality Tourism Act.”
“There is little to no news of what goes on here in Jackson that gets reported up in DeSoto, and so naming the bill after he was just to get my point across,” Blackwell said.
It did just that and made Criswell furious.
“I have never supported these taxes and do not support this tax on the citizens of Olive Branch. I do not believe you can claim to support the Republican platform of lower taxes and support these local tax increases,” Criswell said in an email to supporters last week.
“I hit a nerve, and the intention was to hit a nerve,” Blackwell said.
Criswell then began to attack Blackwell’s conservative record, citing his much higher rating from The American Conservative Union, the oldest conservative lobbying group in the country.
“I have drawn criticism from local officials and other legislators by voting against these local taxes. They are upset because my vote to uphold the Republican principle of lower taxes serves to highlight their vote for the taxes and against the principles they were elected to uphold,” Criswell wrote.
Blackwell argues that his intent wasn’t malicious and that he and Criswell agree on most issues, with this tax being one of, if not the only, major divides.
“Criswell is one of those types who likes to ‘out conservative you’ and I’m not gonna play that game… I got hired by the people of District 19 to represent them and I can't do it with my hands tied behind my back. So I'm gonna do the best I can to untie them,” Blackwell said.
Parker and McLendon have since removed their names from the bill. They signed onto it in its original form, before Blackwell had its name changed in committee. He did so without thinking about their names still being attached to it and then apologized to them both.
Criswell also reported that Scott Phillips, the Mayor of Olive Branch informed him of his intent to rescind the request for the tax. Mayor Phillips declined to comment on the issue during the city’s Board of Alderman meeting Tuesday night. There was an item on the agenda to consider withdrawing a request for legislative support for that bill, but it was withdrawn. This is because there is a sister bill without Criswell’s name attached that is now under consideration in Jackson.
“Most other municipalities in the state already have some sort of tax like this in place… I feel like the people should have a choice, he’s (Criswell) dictating how it should be. It’s just a difference in ideology,” Blackwell said.