BILOXI, Miss. — Mississippi gubernatorial candidates are divided over whether the state should expand Medicaid to the working poor and find additional ways to fund improvements for highways and bridges.
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told Mississippi Press Association members Friday in Biloxi that he’s against expanding Medicaid and increasing the gasoline tax for highways because he wants small government.
Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood said he wants Medicaid expansion because Mississippi has lost billions of federal dollars because of Republican opposition to it. Hood said roads and bridges are deteriorating and the state needs to pay for improvements, but he did not specify how. Other gubernatorial candidates spoke in favor of a gas tax increase for infrastructure.
Candidates made separate appearances during the association’s convention, and they did not debate each other. Reeves and Hood, who have raised the most money in the race, shook hands briefly as Reeves was leaving and Hood was about to speak to newspaper publishers and editors.
Reeves has served two terms as lieutenant governor after having been state treasurer for two terms. He said Democrats “tell you that all we need to do is raise taxes in Mississippi.” Reeves said tax cuts passed by Republicans have created more jobs, but he said critics believe the cuts “haven’t left them enough money for the government.”
“They sing the praises of raising the gas tax on working people as the easy solution for our roads,” Reeves said. “The gas tax is regressive. It hits working families the hardest.”
Hood said “tax giveaways” by Republicans have taken hurt Mississippi’s ability to improve roads. Republicans control the state House and Senate, but Hood said he believes he can work across party lines to improve health care and pay for safer roads.
“No manufacturing outfit’s going to look at you now unless you’ve got a four-lane highway and a school nearby that the executives would want to send their kids to,” Hood said.
Speaking in favor of Medicaid expansion and a gasoline tax increase were two Republican gubernatorial candidates, former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and state Rep. Robert Foster. Waller and Foster have both advocated letting low-income people buy Medicaid coverage, similar to a system Indiana adopted when Republican Vice President Mike Pence was governor of that state.
Waller said that because Mississippi has not expanded Medicaid, rural hospitals and low-income people are struggling.
“Right now, if you don’t make anything, you can get Medicaid but if you make a little bit, you don’t get Medicaid,” Waller said. “Something’s wrong with that. Shouldn’t we incentivize people to work? Is that not conservative?”
Foster made a similar point, saying that people who have jobs that don’t provide health insurance often cannot afford to buy private coverage.
“They end up going into our emergency rooms and taxpayers, including themselves, end up having to foot that bill,” Foster said. “It’s immoral what we’re doing to them because we’re forcing them to pay taxes and pay for people that don’t work, or don’t work hardly at all, to get health care coverage, but they themselves don’t get any of that benefit.”
Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, did not discuss Medicaid expansion. He said increasing the gas tax could help fund education. Smith was the only candidate Friday to mention the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem.
“A lot of people are scared to death to come here because of what they believe that flag represents,” Smith said.
Reeves, Waller and Foster are the only Republicans running for governor, while Hood and Smith are among seven Democrats seeking their party’s nomination. Party primaries are in August, and the general election is in November. Mississippi’s current governor, Republican Phil Bryant, could not seek a third term.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.