If Republican primary voters in Mississippi were looking for fireworks in Tuesday night’s debate between the party’s three candidates for governor, they were disappointed.
By modern standards, the debate was exceptionally civil. Nobody exceeded their time limits for speaking, and the number of “gotcha” moments could be counted on one hand.
Still, enough differences were evident to give Mississippi Republicans a choice:
• Tate Reeves, the lieutenant governor, is the status quo. If you like how Mississippi government has been run the past eight years, he’s your guy.
• Bill Waller, the former state Supreme Court justice, wants to do more. He is focused on higher teacher pay, greater access to health care and better road maintenance.
• Robert Foster, the first-year lawmaker and businessman, is the disruptor. He wants to eliminate the state’s personal income tax, a policy he said has helped states like Texas, Florida and Tennessee prosper.
If any of the candidates exceeded expectations Tuesday, it was Foster. There was no clear winner in the debate, but Foster made a number of good points without relying on the “female” issue that got him national attention a couple of weeks ago.
He took dead aim at Reeves, for example, by saying, “We have a swamp in Jackson, and I believe that the lieutenant governor and Jim Hood are part of that swamp.” He also knocked Reeves for supporting “countless unfunded mandates” that have raised local taxes over the last eight years.
He said that while he opposes Obamacare, “the law is the law,” and too many Mississippi hospitals are in perilous financial shape to rule out accepting federal money for medical care.
Further, he complained that Mississippi’s focus on test scores has ruined education and the teaching profession. These are all valid points. Mississippi may not need a disruptor like Foster, but he handled himself very well Tuesday night.
Waller’s strong point was teacher pay. He wants to raise the starting salary to $40,000 a year, saying it could be done next year. The only way to get more people into classrooms, he noted, is to pay them more.
Waller has other big ideas. He wants to raise the fuel tax to fix more roads and get 300,000 working people onto the Medicaid rolls by accepting federal Obamacare money. It’s hard to argue with him that medical care expansion is a horrible idea when he says he wants to use the same plan that Vice President Mike Pence had as governor of Indiana.
It fell to Reeves to point out the costs: $260 million for teachers and at least $60 million in higher fuel taxes. As for Waller’s contention that it would cost the state nothing to expand Obamacare, Reeves said, “That’s a fairy tale belief.” But, tellingly, he offered no alternatives.
Reeves’ strong point was that the state economy finally is heading in the right direction. The debate did nothing to damage his status as frontrunner — although he was wrong to participate in only one such meeting.
The WJTV panel missed a couple of chances to force the candidates to defend their positions more fully. For example, when all three said they opposed a medical marijuana initiative, the next question should have been: If marijuana is such a dangerous gateway drug, do you have the same concern about opioids? Is it good for the state that 854 million of those pills were distributed in Mississippi from 2006-12?
And when Reeves said a higher fuel tax would hurt working Mississippians but he is philosophically opposed to any form of Obamacare in the state, someone should have asked him why he’s more concerned about the working man’s gasoline bill than his medical care.