JACKSON — It’s a political year, and I was happy to see all the major politicians show up at the Mississippi Press Convention in Biloxi. This week, I’m highlighting the Republican primary for governor:
Bill Waller Jr. is a Jackson resident who served on the Mississippi Supreme Court for 21 years, the last 10 as chief justice. He’s been an adjutant general in the Mississippi National Guard, the highest rank.
He spoke off the cuff and had a good command of the issues facing our state. Here are some of his comments:
• “We have a thousand teacher vacancies.We’re going to do whatever we can as a priority every year until we reach the Southeastern average for teacher salaries. We’ve got to do it or face the consequences.
“The Department of Education is completely broken. The teacher assessment test shuts some schools down for six weeks. The test means nothing. You cannot compare one thing in that test to another state.”
• “We have to have Medicaid reform. I’m pragmatic. I think at this point the Affordable Care Act is here. It’s not going away. We have hospitals from one end of the state that have either closed or gone into bankruptcy, consolidated or sold.
“There are 32 hospitals on the danger list. No civilized community can exist without the infrastructure of a hospital in close proximity. There was over $600 million in uncompensated emergency room care last year. Medicaid reform means a billion dollars a year to Mississippi. We can do it budget-neutral and have conservative policies. Right now if you don’t make anything, you get Medicaid, but if you make a little bit, you don’t get Medicaid. There’s something wrong with that. Shouldn’t we incentivize people to work? Is that not conservative?”
• “When you have seven state bridges closed, you’ve got a serious problem. The lottery is not a dependable source or even enough to do anything. The year 1987 was the last major highway bill. We’re the last state in the Southeast to address this. We’re going to have to step up to the plate and pass a gas tax, or a ‘user fee’ would be a more appropriate term. I want to look at something to offset that, maybe with our license tag or personal income taxes.
“It’s going to take something around $400 million a year to have a measurable impact to repair the bridges, fix the roads and have some new coverage. You have to have a stable, predictable source of revenue. The price of asphalt, steel and other raw materials has gone up 500 percent since 1987. There is no other place to get this money, so we have to go there. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to take the battle to the people, and I think we’re going to win.
• “This is my campaign: If we can get the teacher pay raise going, if we can get Medicaid reform and a billion dollars to 160 hospitals and 60,000 employees and get all these road projects going, then I think those three things would produce a Mississippi miracle right here. I’m convinced we can do it. We would see an immediate material benefit within a year that would produce money for other things. Money for prisons, money for mental health, a real renaissance in the state.
“People need to be excited. They need to have something to look forward to. We need some action, some activity, some plans, some announcements. People need to have some pride in what we’re doing and see some optimism. That’s what I think will happen.”
Tate Reeves is from Rankin County and has been lieutenant governor for eight years and before that state treasurer for another eight.
Reeves spoke more formally from a prepared text. Here are some of his comments:
• “When I ran for lieutenant governor eight years ago, Mississippi’s high school graduation rate was 74 percent. The national average was 83 percent. Since then, the national average has risen from 83 percent to 84 percent. Meanwhile, Mississippi’s average has risen from 74 percent all the way up to 84 percent. Our graduation rates today are now on par with the national average, and if the trend continues, and I believe it will, we will exceed the national average by next year. This was a simple solution, as most effective fixes usually are. We raised the level of expectations. We raised the goal and set real consequences for failure to achieve it, and now Mississippi kids are learning more and learning faster than ever before.”
• “I’m proud of the fact there are 695 children with special needs who now have the opportunity to get the education they deserve because we stood up to powerful special interests who have prevented these reforms for too long. I’m willing to experiment to get new results for these kids. Before we started that program, Mississippi’s high school graduation rate for students with special needs was 22 percent. The good news is that by infusing a little competition for the dollars that these kids get in the system, our high school graduation for special needs has risen over the last three years from 22 percent to almost 35 percent. We cut the gap with the national average in half, and we still have a long way to go but we’re making progress. I believe we need to keep reforming our schools.”
• “Our economy is growing, and now our unemployment rate is at the lowest level than at any time in our state’s history. But that’s not good enough for me. As governor, I will compete with every other state in the country. I’ll compete every single day to win jobs for our people. We will invest more in workforce training so people are ready not for the jobs of the last 50 years but for the jobs of the next 50 years. We will have not one but nine different economic development plans for the nine different regions of our state because what’s best for Waynesboro may not be the best for Tupelo.”
• “Mississippians are already paying more at the pump, as a percentage of their income, than drivers in any other state. The gas tax is regressive. It hits working families the hardest. Even a tax-loving liberal like Elizabeth Warren, when she came to Mississippi to campaign for president, said she doesn’t even favor raising the gas tax. ...
“Infrastructure is a core function of government. What we proved in that special session was that we don’t have to raise anybody’s taxes to perform a core function of government.”
• “Elee (Reeves’ wife) and I both grew up in small Mississippi towns. We both went to Mississippi public schools. We graduated and went to Mississippi colleges. We then got Mississippi jobs. I want my three girls and your kids and grandkids to have those exact same opportunities. I believe a system of smaller government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes and education reform is the best way to make that happen for most Mississippians.”
• “Every other candidate that is running for governor this year supports Obamacare expansion in Mississippi. I am the only candidate who does not.”