Fact check: Gov. Tate Reeves’ first State of the State address, with context

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his first State of the State Address at the State Capitol Monday, January 27, 2020.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves delivered his first address to the citizens. The speech focused on ongoing problems with the state’s prison system, and touched on Reeves’ familiar themes of supporting school choice initiatives, touting educational gains and growing jobs. Our reporters identified a number of statements from Reeves to provide additional context and clarity.

Education

“Mississippi is the number one state in the country for educational gains.”

Fact check: Mississippi received lavish praise last fall for the state’s results on the National Assessment of Education Progress. NAEP tests fourth- and eighth-grade students on what they know and what they can do in math and reading, and in 2019 Mississippi was the only state to see improvement in three of the four tested subjects: fourth-grade reading and math, and eighth-grade math.

These gains are not reflective of overall reading proficiency, however. In all, 32 percent of students were proficient in fourth-grade reading; 39 percent were proficient in math. In eighth grade, 25 percent of students were proficient in reading and 24 percent were proficient in math.

Criminal Justice

“We must be able to trust that the corrections officers operating in these prisons have the tools that they need to do their jobs, and that they are compensated fairly.”

Fact check: People working in Mississippi prisons are among the lowest-paid in the nation. The Mississippi Department of Corrections currently offers a starting salary of $25,650 for correctional officer trainees. Correctional officers and jailers across Mississippi make an average of $14.38 an hour, the lowest in the country, according to May 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2019, then-corrections commissioner Pelicia Hall sought $7.1 million from the Legislature to raise starting pay to be between $28,000 and $31,000.

Budget and the Economy

“Thanks to cost-saving measures and tax cuts that have spurred our economy, we have more money coming in than ever before. We must never forget that our focus on protecting that taxpayers is what got us to this financial position.”

Fact check: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ claims about jobs and the Mississippi economy

Fact check: Recent state collection growth – such as a 4.9 percent increase in fiscal year 2019 – is not historic. In some years during the casino boom of the 1990s, revenue spiked more than 10 percent.

Increases cannot be attributed to recent, historically large tax cuts, including the elimination of the state’s corporate franchise tax, because it hasn’t taken effect. The policy won’t be fully implemented until 2028, at which point the cuts will result in a $415 million annual loss of revenue for the state.

Jobs and the workforce

“There has been a malicious myth spreading across our country for many years: That the only way to achieve the American dream is through a four-year university degree and a career behind a desk … In Mississippi, we know that there is pride in a trade. We know that there is money to be made. We can let the east coast have their ivory towers. We can let the west coast have a generation of gender studies majors. We will take more jobs and higher pay!”

Fact check: Nearly three-fourths of Mississippi’s workforce lack a four-year college degree. The state is second to last, ahead of only Nevada, for the percentage of its workers holding a bachelor’s degree.

But that hasn’t positioned the state as a leader in high-paying blue collar jobs. Mississippi workers without a bachelor’s degree earned an average annual salary of $27,000, according to a 2017 report by Georgetown University. Those with bachelor’s degrees earned $44,000.

“Last year, I outlined a plan to put $100 million into workforce development — training Mississippians so that we are ready to work. Teaching skills to students from the earliest possible age. Apprenticeships, community college grants, and assistance for workers.”

Fact check: Reeves’ workforce development plan invests $75 million in community colleges, which deliver much of the state’s job training, “to modernize their workforce training capabilities,” according to the announcement. It also includes $20 million “to help working families get up on their feet and ready to work” through child care and transportation, services also currently provided by the Mississippi Department of Human Services using traditional welfare funds.

The plan will have to make up for significant declines in traditional training efforts: The number of people served through the state’s job training partners, mostly community colleges, fell by more than half from 3,481 in 2011 to 1,297 in 2018, according to annual reports from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

The $100 million investment is twice as much as former Gov. Phil Bryant funneled to workforce training over ten years under his Mississippi Works initiative in 2016.

“When we are successful, we will see it in the wages of our workers. Income must go up in our state—for every Mississippian. Better paying jobs—quality jobs—are just around the corner.”

Fact check: If wage growth is the marker of success, Mississippi has not seen it.

In October, private sector workers in Mississippi made $744 a week, $221 less than the national average, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. When factoring inflation, these workers saw their weekly pay decline $30 in the last decade.

A 2016 $150-a-year income tax cut will take full effect in 2022, but it will not be enough to make up for current declines in real wages.

On the state’s “Mississippi Works” job opening database last July, the average pay of the available positions in the state was less than $26,000 — under the poverty line for a family of four.

“We can let the west coast have a generation of gender studies majors.”

Fact check: Both Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi offer gender studies programs. The University of Southern Mississippi offers a minor in gender studies.

“We have worked hard in Mississippi to make this the safest state in the country for our innocent unborn children.”

Fact check: In the past several years, with Reeves’ support as lieutenant governor, Mississippi has passed some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion-access laws. All of them have faced legal challenges from abortion rights supporters who believe the efforts violated the constitutional protections for abortion under Roe v. Wade; most of them have been struck down by the federal courts.

Meanwhile, Mississippi continues to have the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Mississippi children are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty.

Kayleigh Skinner and Adam Ganucheau contributed to this article.