Fact check: Tate Reeves and Jim Hood Neshoba fair speeches

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, left, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speak during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

Attorney General Jim Hood and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves delivered fiery Neshoba County Fair speeches last week, which included facts and figures they claimed supported their platforms.

Reeves and Hood are barreling toward the 2019 governor’s race, with Reeves the likely frontrunner for the Republican Party and Hood the leading candidate for the Democratic Party.

Mississippi Today reporters, as they have done in the past, researched and provided context for several of the two candidates’ statements about health care, social services, jobs and the economy.

Attorney General Jim Hood

“You see cops in danger … when they’re arresting people with mental health issues. And then they go put them in jail where they don’t belong, where we’re housing people.”

Fact check: While cops cannot place a mentally ill person in jail unless they commit a crime, a number of advocacy organizations have criticized Mississippi for “warehousing” those mentally ill residents who have been arrested in county jails. In late 2016, 114 defendants were waiting in county jails for one of 35 beds to open up in the Mississippi State Hospital’s forensics unit, with an average wait time of 11 years. Some have been waiting as long as four years, according to a December ProPublica report. That unit has not increased in size or been updated since the 1980s.

Tomie Green, a senior circuit judge in Hinds County, told Mississippi Today that anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of criminal defendants who face her struggle with some form of mental illness. In the last decade, the Department of Mental Health has closed some 500 psychiatric beds in the state in an effort to transition care to communities, but advocates say the resources haven’t followed. In September 2016, the Department of Justice sued Mississippi for failing to adequately provide for mentally ill residents. Since then lawmakers have trimmed the budget for the department by another $14 million. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood speaks at the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

“We’ve seen problems on our crime lab. Say your husband dies, you’ve got to get a death certificate to recover on your insurance. Well, the crime lab is so backed up because we haven’t been able to hire enough people to do autopsies, it’s backed up a year—the widow is (waiting) anywhere from six months to a year to (collect) life insurance.”

Fact check: Parts of this statement are inaccurate. In Mississippi, death certificates are issued by the county coroner, not by the medical examiner’s office, which is part of the crime lab. What the Medical Examiner’s office does issue are finalized autopsy reports, which due to understaffing reached a backlog of up to a year last fall. But according to Hinds County Coroner, Sharon Grisham-Stewart, this backlog doesn’t often affect how death certificates are issued. And even when it does, Stewart said, delays of six months or a year “are very, very rare.”

The Legislature has also worked to increase staffing in the Medical Examiner’s office, nearly tripling the department’s budget from $487,000 to $1.2 million during the last session. As Hood noted, however, the state crime lab remains underfunded and as a result, understaffed. “We’ve had several people leave for more money in other states,” said Chris Wise, the lab’s technical assistance section chief.

“We could have expanded (Medicaid) and kept emergency rooms open, like the one in my town Houston, they’ve closed. We shut down our emergency room. Put that in our perspective. We had better emergency health care in rural Mississippi in 1940 than we do now.”

Fact check: As for the emergency room in Houston, plans to close it began in September of 2013, several months before the Affordable Care Act was fully implemented, the Daily Journal reported in 2014.

Meanwhile, Hood’s comments on the prevalence of hospital emergency rooms are more difficult to assess. The Department of Health only began tracking hospital data in the 1980s and the State Hospital Association said it did not have emergency room data, either. As a result, it’s impossible to quantify the number of emergency rooms in Mississippi in 1940.

But the strain caring for uninsured patients puts on hospital emergency rooms is well-documented. A federal law passed in 1986 explicitly forbids emergency rooms from denying care to poor or uninsured patients based on their inability to pay, as a result, much of the uninsured care that hospitals provide comes through the hospital’s emergency room. The Medicaid expansion part of the Affordable Care Act was intended to help hospitals by increasing the number of insured patients. But whether that would increase the number of emergency rooms is hard to say. California, which expanded Medicaid in 2014,  has one the nation’s lowest number of hospital emergency rooms per capita.

“They (Republican leaders) came in with another tax cut for $418M… Guess what percentage of that goes to large, out-of-state corporations? 78 percent. They didn’t help main street merchants in our state … That’s what’s most frustrating to me. Not seeing them care about regular working people.”

The statement about the percentage of the tax cut going out of state is misleading. The 78 percent figure that Hood cites does exist, but does not apply to the entire $418 million cut. In fiscal year 2016, the state collected $278 million from corporate franchise taxes, which is being phased out. Of that $278 million, 78 percent was collected from companies with headquarters outside the Magnolia State.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

 

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

“When I first asked to be your lieutenant governor, I shared my fundamental beliefs on how to grow our economy. First, we must have a fiscally conservative government. Now, we have a truly balanced budget, nearly $350 million set aside for a rainy day, and we will end our eight-year run with less debt on the books than when we started.”

Fact check: Legislative leadership can claim a “truly balanced budget” in large part due to a 2016 law they passed that swept special funds – or funds that state agencies collected and kept themselves for specific purposes – into the general fund. The special fund sweep gave lawmakers the more than $100 million they needed to balance the budget in fiscal year 2016, and tens of millions a year has continued flowing into the general fund since, according to figures from the Legislative Budget Office.

Reeves: “We must have a tax code that is fair, one that is flat, one that encourages economic development, not one that discourages it. So we passed the largest tax cut in Mississippi history, reducing taxes for all individuals and for job creators because I believe you know how to spend your money better than any bureaucrat in Jackson ever will.”

Fact check: The 2016 tax cut Reeves is referring to minimally helped Mississippi individuals. Lawmakers cut the lowest bracket of the individual income tax, meaning Mississippians will pay $150 a year less in state income taxes on the first $5,000 of taxable income when that portion of the tax cut is fully phased in by 2022.

The job creators Reeves mentioned – particularly corporations based outside of Mississippi – stand to benefit most from the tax cut. Corporations currently pay a franchise tax, which is a tax for having a capital investment in the state, at a rate of $2.50 for every $1,000 in assets. Those companies, beginning this year, will pay 25 cents less per $1,000 in assets each year for 10 years until that rate hit zero in 2028.

Of the $278 million in franchise tax collections in fiscal year 2016, out-of-state companies accounted for $215.9 million — 78 percent — of that total, according to Department of Revenue figures. Just 22 percent came from in-state companies.

“High school graduation rates have risen from 70.5 percent to over 82 percent. We needed to get literacy rates up, and our early childhood initiative has proven to be a national model. Our fourth grade gate scores show our kids’ 10-year growth rate beat 48 other states.”

Fact check: Mississippi has indeed made vast improvements in its graduation rate. Likewise, so has the nation. In school year 2015-16, the national graduation rate for public high school students was 84 percent, which is the highest since the rate was first measured in 2010-11, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At 82 percent, Mississippi’s graduation rate still ranks below the national average. Of our four neighboring states, Louisiana is the only state with a lower graduation rate (79 percent), according to the NCES. Additionally, Mississippi is one of just 11 states in the nation with no schools reporting a 100 percent graduation rate.

Reeves is correct about the fourth grade testing scores — National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores released in April show Mississippi students improved in reading while many states saw declines. The state was fourth in the nation for gains in 4th grade math and 2nd in the nation for gains in fourth grade reading, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

Also known as the Nation’s Report Card, the exam tested fourth and eighth grade students on what they know and can do in math and reading. While both grades saw improvements in reading, math scores remained unchanged and Mississippi continues to score below the national average in both subjects. Much like the national trend, white students in Mississippi outperformed black and hispanic students. State Superintendent Carey Wright said at the time that Mississippi’s scores show the state is moving in the right direction, but “we still have more work to do to ensure every child, regardless of race, poverty-level or disability, has the same opportunity to excel.”

Reeves: “Teachers have received $350 million more in the last four years. I look forward to getting teachers even more in the future. Now, we’ve supported school districts that wanted to offer an innovative approach to teaching. And we’ve supported more options for kids that have been trapped in failing school districts. And we’ve supported taking politics out of local schools by getting rid of elected superintendents.”

Fact check: In 2014, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill increasing teachers’ salaries, but the state still ranks among the lowest in the country for annual salary. In the 2018-19 school year, base pay for a first year teacher with the lowest level of certification is $34,390, although many districts supplement their teachers’ salaries.

A bill to abolish elected superintendents was signed into law in 2016 — at the time, about 38 percent of the state’s public school districts had elected leaders instead of appointed ones.

In recent years, the Legislature has been active in school choice legislation that allows students to attend private schools using public school funds, which Reeves and proponents say gives parents the ability to make choices about what is best for their child. Legislation creating Education Scholarship Accounts passed in 2015 – these scholarships provide up to $6,500 in state funds to eligible students per year for private school tuition. They are intended to reimburse parents of children with special needs who think their child would be better served in a private school setting. Earlier this year, Mississippi Today reported that several private schools who receive these ESA funds use the public schools to provide special education services, which critics argue amounts to taxpayers paying twice to serve these students.

This year, a bill that would have expanded the state’s ESA account program died in the Senate.

In 2016 the Legislature passed a bill creating the Achievement School District, which would remove local control from persistently failing school districts and place them under state leadership. The district was supposed to launch in the 2018-19 school year, but the Mississippi Department of Education has yet to place any schools in the district and a superintendent has not been hired.

“Now you might have heard, I made a lot of people inside the Capitol mad. For far too long, special interests have been rigging the system to get more taxpayer money in their pockets. I’m not their guy because I’m willing to make enemies to protect the taxpayers.”

Fact check: The campaign finance reports filed by Reeves and many other elected officials are lined with donations from special interest groups, PACs representing large corporations, executives of some of the largest companies in Mississippi and lobbyists. In the 2018 legislative session, he proposed a sweeping infrastructure proposal that would have created an advisory board of seven leaders of Mississippi interest groups who would’ve advised the governor on which road and bridge projects to fund. He spearheaded the 2016 franchise tax cut that greatly benefited corporations, most of which are based outside of Mississippi.