Reeves questions how state can afford Hood’s proposals; Hood said setting priorities key

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Jim Hood speaks to media during his speech at Lucy Webb Elementary School in Greenville, Tuesday, September 17, 2019.

Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood has outlined an aggressive and ambitious agenda in his quest to win the Nov. 5 governor’s election against Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

Some question how will he pay for it.

“Jim Hood has an expensive wish list for K-12 education that could hit taxpayers right in the wallet,” the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative, limited government advocacy group, proclaimed on its web page.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

GOP gubernatorial candidate Tate Reeves speaks to media after the gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios Wednesday, August 21, 2019.

On social media, Reeves said, “Jim Hood cannot defend his liberal agenda. We know that his big government plan would bankrupt Mississippi.”

Hood, a four term attorney general and Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, concedes that his agenda is bold, but says that it is needed to move the state forward. He also concedes that it cannot all be done overnight.

“We don’t expect to do all of this in the first year, but we are laying out priorities and the direction we want to see this state take,” Hood said in response to questions from Mississippi Today.

Hood has proposed fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the bulk of state funding for local school districts. The state Department of Education estimates full funding for the upcoming fiscal year would take an additional $309 million.

The funding formula has been fully funded only twice since it was fully enacted in 2003. And it has been underfunded a cumulative $2.5 billion since 2008, creating a deep hole that even full funding advocates concede would be difficult to dig out of in one year.

A multi-year phase-in of full funding most likely would be agreeable to most public school advocates.

In other area of public education, Hood has proposed:

  • A public prekindergarten program costing about $30 million annually.
  • A two-year teacher pay raise of $3,000, costing about $175 million per year when fully enacted.
  • Free community college tuition costing about $6 million annually.

Hood said his goal would be to do pre-K and community college tuition assistance “immediately.”

In the area of health care. Hood wants to expand Medicaid as is allowed under federal law to cover primarily the working poor. The expansion could provide coverage to as many as 300,000 primarily working Mississippians. Reeves maintains the state cannot afford the program. Under the program the federal government pays 90 percent of the costs. It has been estimated, based on various studies, that the cost to the state could be as much as $150 million annually.

Hood says that since the program is funded primarily with federal money, it would be a cost savings to the state Medicaid program in the long run, even generating $100 million annually in revenue because of the economic boon the federal funds would provide the state.

While not being specific, Hood also has called for major additional spending on infrastructure. At one point he spoke favorably of increasing the state’s 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax, one of the lowest in the nation, to pay for the increased spending on roads and bridges, but since becoming a candidate for governor, Hood has only said he wants to look at all options.

Reeves has accused Hood of flip-flopping on the gasoline tax.

In addition to spending money, Hood has advocated reducing revenue by cutting the state’s 7 percent tax on groceries, which is the highest state imposed tax on food in the nation. He said the tax cut would be a benefit to all Mississippians, but especially the working poor who must pay a larger percentage of their income on the tax.

The Mississippi Department of Revenue estimates that the grocery tax generates between $267 million and $315 million annually in state revenue. Hood’s proposal is to cut it in half – from 7 percent to 3.5 percent. In addition, he has promised the state would reimburse municipalities, who also receive a portion of the tax on groceries.

Hood said there are funds available to use for his programs. He cites the fact that during the past eight years the Legislature, led by Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, has cut taxes by $765 million. He refers to the tax cuts as “giveaways to out of state corporations.” While the bulk of the tax cuts are to corporations – many of which are based out of state – many also are for Mississippi citizens. For instance, a $150 million cut to the personal income tax is slated to be phased in during the coming years.

And it is not clear whether Hood could convince the Legislature to repeal most – if any – of the corporate tax cuts.

“Hood has proposed more than a billion dollars in new spending, and has identified no way to pay for it other than raising taxes. There’s no doubt that his tax and spend agenda is in line with the national Democrats that he has chosen to align with,” said Reeves spokesperson Parker Briden.

Hood points to the $240 million the state pays to managed care companies that have contracts with the Mississippi Medicaid program as an area where savings can be achieved. He also points to other areas of what he called waste – such as a $2.3 million contract paid to a company to place posters in schools.

“We’ve got the money,” Hood said. “It’s just what we do with it and how we redirect it.”

Hood said the programs he has proposed are “an investment in our future.”

He added, “I don’t know what the Legislature will do, but what I do know is that nothing is going to happen in the areas of education, health care, and roads and bridges if Tate Reeves is elected. He’s had eight years to do it, but he hasn’t done anything. The votes have been there in the Legislature, but they’ve been choked off from doing anything by the failed leadership of Tate Reeves.”