When it comes to infrastructure, health care and teacher pay raises, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann — who would be the state’s next governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, if Republicans have their way in November — have pitched clashing solutions during their respective campaigns.
The contrasting policy ideas call into question how the duo might work together atop state government and, by extension, how much they would get done.
The question is particularly pressing as Reeves moves to shore up Republican support after a divisive GOP runoff for governor and convince members of his party who voted for former state Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. that he can beat Jim Hood, a popular moderate Democrat, in November.
Hosemann supports a version of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act to aid the state’s 31 rural hospitals on the verge of financial collapse, going as far as meeting with one of the chief architects of Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion law. In 2013, Arkansas drafted a plan to use federal Medicaid dollars to help uninsured people buy private health insurance; later, Arkansas added work requirements and cost sharing for certain Medicaid beneficiaries.
Reeves has bristled at any expansion of Medicaid, which he says could add 300,000 people to the rolls of the joint federal-state health program for low-income citizens. He pointedly criticized fellow Republican challengers in the party’s gubernatorial nomination for being open to the idea — likening Waller to archliberals in Congress such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“I don’t believe you can be for Obamacare expansion and be a conservative,” Reeves said of Waller in August.
Reeves has not talked extensively about his own plan to cover uninsured Mississippians. On his campaign website, he offers that one of his health-care proposals involves “protecting the financial integrity of our Medicaid system and ensuring that it is fiscally sound” as well as supporting “free-market innovations.”
The split between a potential future lieutenant governor, who would preside over the state Senate, and governor with veto power would also play out over other key issues.
Hosemann says it’s past time to seriously address the state’s infrastructure crisis. In an interview on Wednesday, Hosemann left open the possibility of an increase in the state’s gasoline tax to address the hundreds of closed bridges across the state and a halt on new highway construction. Echoing his position on Medicaid, Reeves slammed rival Waller the past month for proposing a gas tax increase, saying in August, “I don’t believe you can be for raising taxes and be a conservative.”
What Reeves called his $1 billion infrastructure plan, which involved using money from the so-called rainy day fund and contributions from local governments, was defeated during the 2018 legislative session. It is unclear whether Reeves would revisit the proposal if elected governor; infrastructure is not among the key issues listed on his campaign website.
Reeves downplayed last month any effect his hard lines drawn on Medicaid expansion and the gasoline tax could have on his relationship with Hosemann or state Rep. Jay Hughes, an Oxford Democrat opposing Hosemann for the lieutenant governor’s seat.
“I have absolutely no concern with isolating myself from anybody,” Reeves said on Aug. 20. “I will tell you what I am for; I will tell you what I’m against. I think the voters deserve to know that. I’m opposed to raising the gas tax. I believe taxes are too high. I’m opposed to Obamacare expansion in our state and putting 300,000 more people on the rolls.”
Reeves has consistently touted gains in Mississippi students’ educational performance during the past eight years and touted salary increases and incentives for Mississippi teachers that went into effect on his watch.
He has also called for reining in administrative spending and more accountability of education spending before giving teachers a bigger salary bump. During the Republican nomination fight, he scoffed at the notion of more money for teachers next legislative session, saying, “That is certainly a laudable goal and one we should all strive for… We need to be realistic about our numbers and make sure we can do things within the confines of our budget.”
Hosemann says his first legislative priority in January 2020, if elected, would be increasing public school teacher salaries. Reeves drew the ire of public educators in 2019 after he championed a $1,500 teacher pay raise that failed to move Mississippi’s average teacher salary from lowest among the states.
The policies Hosemann backs more closely mirror those of Hood, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Waller, who grabbed 46 percent of the Republican electorate in the primary runoff despite his less-than-hardline leanings.
The contrasts between Hosemann and Reeves — and foreshadowing a potential stalemate between them — came into sharper focus this week when Hosemann vowed to practice a kind of bipartisan leadership style that he says the Legislature has moved away from in recent years.
During those years, Reeves became known for his heavy-handed leadership presiding over the Senate, shutting most rank-and-file Democrats out of the legislative process completely and brawling often with House Republicans — infighting that often killed major Republican policy proposals.
Shortly after receiving the Wednesday endorsement from Guest in Rankin County, Hosemann reminisced with the event’s attendees about what he described as a bygone era and vowed to build coalitions inside the Capitol to solve the state’s biggest problems.
“We worked across the aisle back when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and Republicans controlled the other side,” Hosemann said. “We still were able to work together without people talking about each other. We’d talk to each other. We were able to go back through the process of having conversations about a common goal.”
Hosemann continued: “That’s something that we need to cherish. You’ll see us working between the House and the Senate. You’ll see us working with everyone to get things done on education, healthcare, infrastructure and all the things Mississippi needs to address. We’ll solve those issues.”
Hosemann’s assessment of legislative dysfunction also came amid questions whether he would endorse Reeves. Earlier in the week, Waller said he would not make any endorsements in the upcoming November elections.
At a press conference Monday, Hosemann sidestepped questions from reporters about endorsing Reeves.
“I think our party will best be served by everybody settling a bit before we do any endorsements and any other things with it,” Hosemann told WJTV at an event his campaign hosted in which he was endorsed by Republican Congressman Michael Guest. “We had a campaign (for lieutenant governor), we had a distinct winner, and we’re ready to go forward. I’m a Republican, so I think it’s time to let that settle a little bit.”
Hosemann faces Democratic state Rep. Jay Hughes in the Nov. 5 general election. Hughes supports similar policies as Hosemann and Hood, including Medicaid expansion.