Tuesday’s Republican governor debate didn’t provide any major revelations, but it did give some insights into the most important race facing Mississippi voters this year.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and State Rep. Robert Foster spoke from the WJTV studio in Jackson for their lone debate before the Aug. 6 primary.
The format, which consisted mostly of one-minute or 30-second responses, didn’t provide much opportunity for back-and-forth, which is usually the most revealing aspect of these things.
Foster, for his part, seemed to be trying to bait Reeves into responding to attacks. For example, he claimed Reeves can’t relate to your average citizen because he’s been been paid by the government for 16 years and alleged that Reeves looks at children as statistics, not individuals.
I thought those were weak criticisms, and the lieutenant governor did well to mostly ignore them. We should want good people to seek elected office, and you can’t blame them for getting paid from taxpayer-dollars if they do so.
A better opportunity to challenge Reeves would have been when he flatly denied any possibility of raising the gas tax to pay for road and bridge repairs, almost bragging about refusing to do anything about that issue that is so important to so many Mississippi individuals and businesses.
Either his opponents or the debate moderators should have followed up by asking, first, if he thinks Mississippi has an infrastructure problem and, second, what he thinks should be done about it.
I have nothing personal against Reeves, but it’s extremely frustrating to me that he has refused, from his position as the frontrunner, to bring up any substantial policy issues during this campaign. It’s all been “no, no, no” and blaming everything on the “liberal media” and “Chuck and Nancy.” To me, that’s an abdication of the leadership that voters and taxpayers should expect from our highest office.
In that regard, I thought Waller continued to present the strongest plans on policy issues. The son of a former governor gave specific plans on three issues important to me:
1. He said he thought the state could get the starting pay for new teachers up to $40,000 in the next legislative session and continue raising it until it hits the Southeastern average.
2. He said a gas tax increase would be the fairest way, as former President Reagan agreed, to pay for road repairs and that he would offset it by removing the 4 percent state income tax bracket.
Reeves responded that those two projections aren’t realistic within the budget; maybe so, but what’s his plan? We’re all still waiting.
3. Waller backed a plan to boost hospitals by accepting federal Medicaid expansion, which would bring an estimated $1 billion or so into the state in federal money, with hospitals saying they would pay the state’s match between themselves and premiums that the working poor who would get coverage through the program would pay. Waller said it’s based on Vice President Mike Pence’s plan when he was Indiana’s governor.
Waller also pounded Reeves on the economy, saying the U.S. has had 22 percent GDP growth since 2009, while Mississippi has only had 2 percent GDP growth during that time. That fits my observation of Mississippi during that period and goes against Reeves’ assertion that everything is dandy with the state’s economy.
Foster’s policy plan centers on a libertarian approach that eliminating the state income tax will lead to growth. I agree that an income taxes gives a disincentive to work that hurts an economy, but once it’s there taking it away does not magically fix everything, as Kansas painfully found out.
Foster also hasn’t provided revenue projections for certain levels of gas or sales tax increases, which indicates there’s not much of a real plan there.
Finally, the last words of the debate, spoken by Waller, could prove to be key: “I’m the conservative Republican that can win in November.” That was an insinuation that Reeves cannot beat Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in the general election. We’ll see over the next few weeks what the voters think.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. He may be reached at (601) 736-2611.