April 3, 2019 10:47:56 AM
STARKVILLE -- Two candidates and about 100 spectators turned out Tuesday for a Republican Primary Debate hosted by the Mississippi State University Young Republicans at Bettersworth Auditorium on campus.
The candidates -- retired Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and first-term state Rep. Robert Foster -- gave brief opening and closing statements while responding to questions on economic development, infrastructure, education and health care.
The third candidate -- Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves -- did not attend, having said the debate would conflict with his duties, even though the Legislature, as expected, ended its 2019 session on Friday.
Although Waller and Foster generally agreed on most subjects, the two differed on the solutions.
Waller advocated an increase in the state's fuel tax to properly fund infrastructure repairs while Foster said replacing personal income tax with a flat tax would generate the money necessary to put the state's roads and bridges in order. Both said the Legislature's $1.1 billion package for road/infrastructure was insufficient to correct the problem.
"It's a raindrop in a puddle," Waller said.
On economic development, Waller said the state's current approach of providing large incentives to entice industry to the state is flawed.
"Tax breaks to out-of-state companies are offensive to me," Waller said. "The price tag for the Continental (Tire) plant is $600 million and they still haven't hired anybody yet. I would refocus MDA (Mississippi Development Authority) on businesses already here in Mississippi that are employing people right now. That would have an immediate impact for Mississippians, not people in Germany or some other country."
Foster's view on corporate tax breaks was more muted.
"We do have to recognize that we are not in a bubble," he said. "We have competition. Sometimes you do have to make a special deal. In the long term, that's better than not having those companies at all."
In response to a question about the Legislature's move to raise teacher pay by $1,500 this session, both said the raises are inadequate.
"I don't think teacher pay should be an election year issue," Waller said. "I would raise teacher pay every year until it reaches the Southeast average."
"(Teacher pay) hasn't been a priority of our leadership at all," Foster said. "We need to have a serious discussion about funding."
On health care, Foster said the state needs to a system that will allow more people to enter into insurance exchanges.
"I think one of the best things we could do is to set up an exchange, which would allow people and smaller businesses to pool their insurance, which would drive down their costs," he said. "We also need to reform Medicaid in an affordable, conservative way."
Waller said Medicaid "reform" was consistent with his conservative values even though many Republicans oppose expansion of the program.
"It's a right to life issue for me," said Waller, who said Mississippi should expand/reform Medicaid using the 'Mike Pence-style' Medicaid expansion implemented in Indiana.
"Every community needs accessible health care," he added. "It's also an economic issue. Right now, we have four rural hospitals that are in bankruptcy. Reforming Medicaid is something vital to our hospitals, which provide 60,000 good-paying jobs."
On education, both candidates said the state should commit more resources to vocational and workforce programs.
"Two out of three high school graduates in our state aren't going to college," Waller noted. "We have to find a way to make sure our high schools are preparing those students for the jobs that are out there, most of which don't require a college degree."
While Reeves was absent, Foster made a point to draw a distinction between himself and the presumed front-runner.
"My dad used to say, 'If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch,'" Foster said in his opening statement. "Well, I'm here. If our third opponent was here tonight instead of being back on the porch, maybe we could find out how many promises he's made, how many favors he owes. I don't owe any favors."
The GOP primary will be held Aug. 6.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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