Fact checking Jim Hood and Tate Reeves in the 2019 gubernatorial debates

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Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

WCBI-TV anchor Aundrea Self lays out the rules for the second televised gubernatorial debate between Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, left, and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, in Columbus, Miss., Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.

Mississippians watched Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood square off in two debates in the span of less than a week — first in Hattiesburg and later in Columbus.

These could be the only debates to take place before the Nov. 5 election.

In these televised debates, the gubernatorial candidates sparred over the topics of teacher pay, Medicaid expansion, healthcare and the economy.

Mississippi Today fact checked each candidate’s statements and provided context for several of their claims.

Medicaid and mental health

“As a result of these tax giveaways the lieutenant governor (gave) to his campaign contributors we have cut 624 people from the Department of Mental Health…” — Attorney General Jim Hood, WCBI debate in Columbus, Oct. 14, 2019

Fact check: The “tax giveaways” that Hood appears to be talking about here is the elimination of the franchise tax, the hallmark of the massive 2016 tax cut package that Reeves championed as lieutenant governor. A 2017 Mississippi Today analysis showed that the vast majority of dollars saved by eliminating that tax went to out-of-state corporations.

Meanwhile, despite Hood’s attempt to link jobs cuts at the mental-health department to the budgets Reeves oversaw, the reality is more complicated.

In 2017, the Department of Mental Health announced plans to cut about 650 positions in its state hospitals and residential centers by the end of that fiscal year in an attempt to close a $20 million budget gap. However, closing beds at state hospitals was also part of a shift in priorities for the agency as it struggles to keep up with federal standards of care. In 2016, the Department of Justice sued the state for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that the state violated the rights of Mississippians by warehousing people with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness in outdated state hospitals.

The alternative to this is a community-based system of care. At the federal trial this summer, however, executive director Diana Mikula testified that the Legislature and a lack of state funding were partly to blame for the agency’s inability to roll out adequate community-based services to its residents.

“We know the services that we need to apply. We don’t have a plan. We’re trying to work with our appropriation, and we know the services we want. The plan is to use the money whenever it is available,” Mikula said in U.S. District Court in June.

“The federal government has been offering us $1 billion a year for the past five years (to expand Medicaid), and he has cost us $5 billion by turning it down. And it wouldn’t cost us a dime, the hospitals would pay the match on that.” — Attorney General Jim Hood, WCBI debate

Fact check: Since the launch of the Affordable Care Act in late 2013, 37 states have opted to expand Medicaid access to adults earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. In Mississippi, 350,000 people fall into what’s called “the coverage gap,” meaning they earn too much to qualify for federal Medicaid and too little to qualify for a subsidy under the health care law. Despite qualifying for a 90 percent federal match rate, the highest in the country, Mississippi has not yet expanded Medicaid. Although estimates differ, $1 billion is within the ballpark of federal funds that the state would receive to pay for Medicaid expansion.

In saying the hospitals would “pay the match,” Hood appears to be referring to a specific Medicaid expansion plan proposed by the Mississippi Hospital Association back in May. States normally shoulder the burden of paying the Medicaid costs not covered by matching federal dollars, but under this particular plan, which also involves creating a hospital-run insurance provider, hospitals would pay the remaining 10 percent.

Claim: “It costs somebody $220 million a year because there’s a state match… and if hospitals are going to pay it that means that your costs when you go to the hospital are going to go up. That your insurance rates are going to go up. This notion that there’s free money from the federal government just doesn’t make any sense to the people of Mississippi.” — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, WCBI debate

Fact Check: Reeves’s estimate of the state share and his claim that allowing hospitals to pay it are baseless. Reeves estimated the price tag of the state share at $220 million, nearly double the $117 million estimated by the Hospital Association in May.

Referring to the Hospital Association’s plan, he said that allowing hospitals to pay the match would increase costs for the average consumer, but there is little reason to assume that is true.

Hospitals would partly fund the $117 million state match by charging patients a small premium and for non-emergency visits to the emergency room. The rest would be paid by the hospitals themselves. More than 350,000 Mississippians currently don’t have health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This leaves Mississippi hospitals, which are federally required to treat anyone who comes to the emergency department regardless of an ability to pay, on the hook for $600 million in uncompensated care each year.

Although unknowns exist, the hospital association has repeatedly rejected the idea that their plan would raise their costs. In May, Tim Moore of the Mississippi Hospital Association told Mississippi Today, “We aren’t going to push a plan we thought would cost us more money.”

Education

Claim: “The reality is that over the last five years we’ve increased teacher pay. (Pay increased) in 2014. We’ve increased teacher pay in 2015. We increased it again in 2019. All told, that was about $4,000 per teacher.” — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, WJTV debate, Hattiesburg, Oct. 10, 2019

Fact check: Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill raising teacher salaries in 2014, giving teachers a $2,500 pay raise that cost the state about $100 million in total. The raise was rolled out over a two year period, with $1,500 in the 2014-15 school year and $1,000 in the 2015-16 school year. In essence, Reeves is counting the passage of the 2014 pay raise and its two-year roll out as three separate efforts to raise teacher pay.

During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed an additional $1,500 pay raise for teachers and assistant teachers. Still, Mississippi teachers remain some of the lowest paid in the nation.

Claim: “Average teacher pay in Mississippi, from 2012 to today, they’re making $900 less. Not $8,000 more.” — Attorney General Jim Hood, WJTV debate

Fact check: Whether the premise of this claim — that teachers make less today than they did in 2012 — is accurate depends on how you look at it. In the 2012-13 school year, the average salary for a classroom teacher was $41,814 according to the Mississippi Department of Education. In the 2018-19 school year the average salary for classroom teachers was $45,105. However, when adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index calculator, the adjusted average salary for the 2012-13 school year was about $650 more than the average salary for the 2018-19 school year.

Claim: Teachers make $8,000 more today than they did eight years ago. — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, WCBI debate

Fact check: A first year teacher’s pay without any district supplements was $30,900 in the 2012-13 school year. If that same teacher was still teaching today with the same level of certification and no supplements, this year he or she would be earning $38,365 with eight years of teaching experience, according to the 2019-20 salary schedule.

Together with the $2,500 pay raise signed into law in 2014, the $1,500 raise passed this year and the step increases teachers receive based on their time in the workforce, an educator who was teaching eight years ago and is still teaching today could be making $8,000 more than they were back then.

Reeves has cited this statistic before. A large part of the increase in pay teachers receive comes from the step increases, which were put in place by the Legislature decades ago. Based on level of education, teachers receive an additional $495-794 annually, but only after teaching for three years.

Budget and economy

Claim: “There is no way to afford all the programs Mr. Hood has proposed without raising taxes.” — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, WBCI debate

Fact check: Hood has proposed $941 million in new programs, Reeves said in both debates.

It is true that Hood has made proposals that would cost around the amount cited by Reeves. But Hood has maintained that he would not try to pay for all the programs in one year. He has spoken of eliminating waste to garner new money. And he said an infusion of about $1 billion per year in federal funds for Medicaid expansion and from an infrastructure program would spur economic development in the state and increase revenues for his programs.

Hood, like Reeves, has committed to a first year teacher pay raise and Hood has committed to about $30 million in the first year for a pre-kindergarten program.

Claim: “We have the lowest unemployment rate in our state’s history and more people are working than anytime in our state’s history. We are in the best financial shape and best fiscal shape in our state’s history.” — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, WCBI debate

Fact check: Reeves routinely makes similar claims. As Reeves points out the state’s rainy day fund is near its maximum capacity of $455 million and state revenue collections are on the uptick.

In the area of jobs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles two separate jobs surveys. Under one, there are more people working now. But based on a separate survey, more Mississippians were working in the 2000s.

At any rate, even under the more favorable survey, Mississippi recovered the jobs lost during the 2008 recession slower than most other states. Under that survey, the number of people with jobs in Mississippi did not surpass the pre-recession 2008 level for a decade until early in 2018, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of December 2018, jobs growth since the 2008-09 recession was 1.3 percent in Mississippi compared to 8.3 percent nationally, according to University Research Center data.

Mississippi’s unemployment rate is near historically low levels, but the state’s workforce participation rate of about 56 percent is the second lowest in the nation.

Adjusted for inflation, Mississippi workers are set to make roughly $40 a week less in 2019 compared to 2009, according to BLS data.

Claim: “The Mississippi Legislature cannot set the state’s minimum wage.” —Attorney General Jim Hood, WJTV debate

Fact check: In response to a question, Hood said he believed the $7.25 per hour minimum wage should be raised, but said it was a federal, not state issue. The fact is the Mississippi Legislature could increase the state’s minimum wage. Bills are filed most every session to do just that, though, they never make it out of committee. Multiple states have imposed minimum wages higher than the national mandate.

Let us know if you hear a politician’s claim that Mississippi Today should fact check.