BILOXI — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves spoke in rosier terms about the condition of Mississippi than did other candidates Friday morning at the annual convention of the Mississippi Press Association.

But even Reeves, campaigning to win the Republican nomination for governor this August on the position Mississippi is thriving in part because of his leadership, conceded there is room for improvement in the state.

“I know there is always a lot of different stats that y’all can find to push back and say things aren’t perfect,” Reeves said to the room full of journalists. “I got to tell you I agree. Things aren’t perfect.

“I wouldn’t be running for governor if I believed conditions in this state were perfect. I would probably be down here in Biloxi going to the beach everyday. But we are making progress in Mississippi.”

The other candidates cited the poor condition of the state’s infrastructure – roads and bridges on both the state and local levels – the low pay for teachers, slow economic growth, and the lack of health care for many Mississippians as issues that need to be addressed.

The candidates spoke back-to-back and answered questions from members of the Mississippi Press Association. Some candidates, such as Attorney General Jim Hood and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, the two Democratic candidates for governor, spoke so long it limited their time for questions. None of the other five lesser known candidates for governor on the Democratic side were invited to the event.

While not all the candidates were even in the room at the same time, Reeves and Hood, the two front-runners for their respective party’s nominations, did cross paths for one of the first times on the campaign trail this year and shake hands.

Reeves’ two Republican opponents, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and state Rep. Robert Foster, in essence agreed with Hood that an increase in the tax on gasoline was needed to pay for road and bridge needs. The two Republicans, though, touted likely tax shifts, such as reducing or eliminating the income tax while increasing the levy on gasoline, to pay for road and bridge repairs.

Hood said an August special session where legislators passed a lottery and shifted money from education and other programs to provide $235 million annually for five years for infrastructure was an effort to give the appearance the issue was being solved during an election year. But Hood said people knew that the special session would not fix the problem.

Waller pointed out the only money designated for state road and bridge needs, as opposed to local roads and bridges, in the special session was revenue from the lottery, which is yet to go into effect. In addition, the amount going to infrastructure from the lottery is capped at $80 million annually. But Waller questioned whether the lottery would generate $80 million a year.

He said designating “a sin tax,” such as the lottery, for transportation was “unprecedented.”

“Are you fricking kidding me?” he asked to laughter.

Foster argued that not only should the gasoline tax be increased, but also other use or sales taxes. He said the income tax should be eliminated in the state and the loss revenue offset by increasing use taxes, such as on gasoline, on retail items.

He said that would grow the state economy and help Mississippi compete economically with Tennessee and Texas, which have no state income tax.

Reeves argued that the gasoline tax “is regressive,” having more of an impact on low wage earning, working people, and that Mississippians already pay more gasoline tax “as a percentage of their income than drivers in any other state.”

Reeves said even U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and presidential candidate known for her progressive views, opposed increasing the gasoline tax. Reeves, focusing more on Hood than his Republican opponents, said Hood was “to the left of Elizabeth Warren” on the gasoline tax.

Reeves also differed with the other candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, on providing Medicaid coverage for as many as 300,000 Mississippians, primarily the working poor who earn too much for the regular Medicaid program but cannot afford to purchase private health insurance.

Reeves said he continued to opposed “Obamacare,” referring to the fact the “Medicaid expansion’ is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Foster called it “Medicaid reform” and Waller in essence supports a version of the program touted by the Mississippi Hospital Association. That plan would depend on revenue from the hospitals and from the new beneficiaries to pay the state’s share, while the federal government would pay 90 percent of the costs, an estimated $1 billion per year.

Reeves said he told Tim Moore, executive director of the hospital association, who also spoke to the press association, he would take a look at the proposal, but he said he doubts he would support it.

While Moore and others said the proposal was Medicaid “reform not expansion,” state Rep. Jay Hughes D-Oxford, who is running for lieutenant governor, said it is indeed expansion and that he supports it. Hughes said he also favors an increase in the gasoline tax for infrastructure needs.

Both Hughes, and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who is running for lieutenant governor on the Republican side, touted making the Senate more transparent and giving members more power. Hosemann was not at the convention due to a previous commitment, but provided a video of his remarks.

Shuler Smith said the state must address the issue of the flag – by replacing the current flag that contains the Confederate battle emblem as part of its design – to help the state move forward economically. He did not offer any details of how to get such a proposal through the Legislature that has refused to change the flag.

Hood also has endorsed changing the flag, though, he did not mention it to the press association.

The three Republican candidates for governor have not voiced support for changing the flag.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.