By Bobby Harrison, Geoff Pender and Adam Ganucheau
The opening salvos of the 2023 governor’s race were fired on Monday as Gov. Tate Reeves delivered his annual State of the State address and his opponent Brandon Presley offered the Democratic Party’s response.
“2022 was perhaps the best year in Mississippi history,” Reeves declared on the south steps of the Mississippi State Capitol on Monday evening. “… Today, it’s a cold-hard-fact that really, really good things are happening in Mississippi. And it’s my honor to stand before you today and announce that the state of our state is stronger than ever.”
Reeves, the first-term Republican governor, focused much of his speech on economic development and touted state government’s nearly $4 billion budget surplus as an example of good times under his watch.
“Our conservative reforms and sound budget management have laid the foundation for this economic boom,” Reeves said. “It’s the policies of yesterday that have paved the pathway to today’s prosperity.”
Presley, a Democratic public service commissioner who announced a 2023 challenge of Reeves earlier this month, delivered a response to the State of the State. He blasted the governor’s leadership over the past four years, saying the state is “moving in the wrong direction” under Reeves’ leadership.
“While he brags about a budget surplus, family budgets are running out,” Presley said. “And while you’re careful with your money, he’s throwing your tax dollars away. He’s been caught in the middle of the largest public corruption scandal in our state’s history. $77 million dollars of taxpayer money that should have gone to working families that are struggling instead went to help build a volleyball court… a volleyball court! … Some was even given to Tate Reeves’ own personal trainer. And you should tune in because we are only just now learning how bad and possibly illegal all of this activity was.”
Standing for a recorded video in an abandoned hospital in Newton County, Presley also panned Reeves for refusing to address the state’s hospital crisis.
“We have a solution. By extending Medicaid to the working people of our state, we can keep hospitals across Mississippi from experiencing the same fate as this one,” Presley said. “All Tate Reeves has to do is lift his hand, take an ink pen, and sign on a line. Instead, he lacks the backbone and he will sit on his hands while people lose their jobs, some lose their lives and our hospitals suffer. When Tate Reeves finally wakes up and asks why hospitals are closing, he should look in the mirror.”
Reeves, though, said in his speech that his plan to solve the state’s health care crisis and pending hospital closures is to encourage competition in health care, innovation and technology. He urged lawmakers to “think outside the box” on improving health care and to not expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor.
“Don’t simply cave under the pressure of Democrats and their allies in the media who are pushing for the expansion of Obamacare, welfare, and socialized medicine,” Reeves said. “Instead, seek innovative free market solutions that disrupt traditional healthcare delivery models, increase competition, and lead to better health outcomes for Mississippians. Do not settle for something that won’t solve the problem because it could potentially and only temporarily remove the liberal media’s target on your back. You have my word that if you stand up to the left’s push for endless government-run healthcare, I will stand with you.”
The candidates’ contrast in outlook on state of the state sets up what is expected to be among the most expensive and bitter governor’s races in state history. Reeves will continue boasting what he says are accomplishments and gains the state has made under his leadership, while Presley will continue critiquing the governor’s positions on major issues facing the state.
In a 45-minute speech on Monday, Reeves laid out the accomplishments he said had been achieved.
He said the state set a record economic pace during his governorship, including a $2.5 billion aluminum plant announced near Columbus, for which lawmakers at Reeves’ behest pledged $247 million in incentives.
The favorable economic conditions, Reeves said, “led to investing a historic amount in jobs training, and … resulted in a record $6 billion in new capital investment in 2022, which is more than seven times the previous average of approximately $900 million a year before I became governor.”
Reeves said that wages in Mississippi are rising, by more than $7,000 or 18% per capita since 2019 and the state is seeing “the lowest unemployment rate in our state’s history.”
But despite Reeves’ rosy portrait of the state’s economy, he omitted several key statistics about the state’s economy. Mississippi had the lowest per capita income for 2021 at $45,881, according to the St. Louis office of the Federal Reserve. The average of Mississippi’s four contiguous states, was $52,780.
And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the third quarter of 2022, Mississippi’s personal income increased by 3.8%. Eight states saw their personal income increase less than Mississippi’s during the period.
And, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Mississippi added only 500 net jobs between December 2021 and 2022, meaning its job growth for the year was essentially flat, or statistically 0%. All other states had jobs growth of at least 1%, with some exceeding 6%.
Presley, in his response, highlighted some other economic problems the state has faced.
“Mississippi is at the bottom of the nation for economic growth,” Presley said. “We’re one of only three states that lost population, and the numbers recently released by the bureau of labor statistics show zero job growth in Mississippi. We are one of only seven states that taxes groceries.”
Reeves reiterated his vow to eliminate the state’s personal income tax — a proposal lawmakers debated at length last year but defeated, although they did pass the largest income tax cut in state history, which is still being implemented. He did not mention eliminating the grocery tax.
Reeves also said the state has seen historic improvement in education in recent years. He said reforms he helped pass as lieutenant governor about a decade ago have brought much success in public education.
“A little over a week ago we announced – for the third time since I’ve been governor – that Mississippi’s high school graduation rate hit an all-time high and continues to be better than the national average,” Reeves said.
The governor also focused heavily on red-meat conservative issues — in response to what Reeves called “the radical left’s war on our values.”
Reeves reiterated his support for a “Parents Bill of Rights,” similar to legislation being passed or debated in many other GOP-led states that would force public school teachers to share lesson plans and administrators to adhere to the will of parents on things like names, pronouns and other health matters.
Reeves also lamented “a dangerous and radical movement that is now being pushed upon America’s kids” regarding treatment of transgender people and vowed to fight such movements. Legislation is pending this year in Mississippi and other states to ban gender-affirming procedures and drugs for anyone 18 or under.
“Across the country, activists are advancing untested experiments and persuading kids that they can live as a girl if they’re a boy, and that they can live as a boy if they’re a girl,” Reeves said. “And they’re telling them to pursue expensive, radical medical procedures to advance that lie.”
To deal with an expected increase in child deliveries from the overturning of Roe v. Wade abortion rights, Reeves said the state should cut red tape and make adoption easier, create childcare tax credits and allow parents to write off childcare supplies on tax returns and increase support for pregnancy resource centers. He said the state should strengthen its child support laws and force more fathers to support children.
Reeves vowed to help fight crime in the capital city of Jackson and statewide. He also vowed to go after government corruption, such as the state’s massive welfare scandal.”
“That’s why this session, I’m calling on the legislature to make further investment into our Capitol Police by giving them the 150 officers and equipment they need to continue fulfilling their mission and continue pushing back on lawlessness in Jackson,” Reeves said.
And in a statement that directly addresses one of Presley’s points about Reeves involvement in the welfare scandal, the governor vowed that “my administration will go after all crime within our jurisdiction.”
“Regardless of the crime committed, regardless of who did it, regardless if it happened on the street or in an office building, my administration is and will continue to hold criminals accountable,” Reeves said. “That’s why my administration remains committed to delivering justice and recouping every dollar possible from those who stole from Mississippians through the theft of TANF (welfare) dollars.”
Throughout both speeches, the contrast in perspectives between Reeves and Presley were on full display.
“Mississippi is winning, and our state is on the rise,” Reeves said. “I urge all of you here today to stand with me and call out the lies when they are thrown at all of us. We can never give into the cynics who seek to tear down our great state. We can never give into Joe Biden and the national Democrats who seek to force-feed us an unhealthy dose of progressivism because they view Mississippians as neanderthals. And we can never give into those who want us to live in a perpetual state of self-condemnation.”
Presley, though critical of Reeves and his leadership, did present a positive outlook on the state’s future.
“Together, we can build a Mississippi that focuses on the future, not the past,” Presley said. “We can build an economy that works for everybody… We should fund the police, increase healthcare, and invest in education. Together, we are going to end the insane grocery tax. We’re going to make sure folks from Walnut on the Tennessee line to Waveland on the Gulf Coast can walk with pride because they have a job and hope for their children’s future.”