The sad specter of the COVID-19 pandemic hung over Tuesday’s State of the State speech from Gov. Tate Reeves.
The speech was held outside the Mississippi State Capitol before a limited crowd, including legislators and a few others. The event is normally held inside the House of Representatives chamber, where legislators and other state elected officials crowd elbow-to-elbow to hear the annual address.
Typically, governors use the State of the State address to announce ranging new policy initiatives. Reeves on Tuesday delivered a relatively short speech and avoided any new policy specifics.
The theme of Reeves’ speech was the state’s resiliency and the need to recover strongly.
“We have taken every hit that can be thrown,” Reeves said. “We’ve been tested by every force of nature, disease and human frailty. It is already a miracle that our state is still standing, but we are not simply standing. We are marching forward.”
Mississippi Today reporters listened to Reeves’ speech and fact-checked and contextualized key points the governor made.
Reeves: “I support a teacher pay raise. I know the Senate has already passed the Lieutenant Governor’s plan, and I know that the Speaker and the House have always been supportive of raises for teachers. I’ll be eager to sign any raise that the legislature can send me. Our teachers have earned it. It’s the right way to invest.”
Fact check: Reeves has said before he would sign a pay raise bill if it crossed his desk. Though he campaigned in 2019 on a promise to provide Mississippi teachers with a $4,300 pay raise over four years, he did not advocate for or mention a raise in the budget recommendation he sent lawmakers in November 2020.
Senate Bill 2001 recently passed out of the Senate and now awaits action in the House. It would provide a $1,000 raise for most public school teachers, and a $1,110 raise for teachers with zero to three years experience with a bachelor’s degree, bringing their starting pay to $37,000. This is still below the Southeastern regional average of $38,420 and national average of $40,154. A study by the National Education Association of starting teacher salaries for 2018-2019 ranked Mississippi’s pay 46th among states. If it passes, the raise would cost taxpayers about $51 million a year.
Reeves: “That mission really begins years sooner, with a solid education. Mississippi has made incredible strides — number one in the nation in improvements.”
Fact check: It’s unclear what specific improvements the governor is referencing here. In 2019, Mississippi received high praise for being the only state in the country to improve reading scores on a nationally administered exam, but the coronavirus pandemic caused state testing to be cancelled in spring 2020, meaning last year there was no way for schools and districts to receive new accountability ratings which measure student performance.
Reeves: “Last weekend, we celebrated 100,000 vaccines delivered. That took us about six weeks. We’ve done another 100,000 vaccinations since then, and as we speak we are likely delivering our 200,000th vaccine! That’s because we refused to accept a slow pace – we went from the worst state in the country at the beginning of the process to operating at peak capacity.”
Fact check: As of Jan. 26, at least 175,417 Mississippians — about 6% of the state’s population – have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health’s database. On the same day, 18,012 Mississippians had received the second dose.
Officials have said more Mississippians have likely received the vaccine than is reflected in the database because of reporting lags. It is possible that Mississippi delivered its 200,000 dose on Tuesday, but it’s unlikely a 200,000th Mississippian received a first dose on Tuesday.
Reeves: “We have to defeat (COVID-19) because Mississippians are done. We’re done burying loved ones who were lost to this virus. We’re done with stressed hospitals. We’re done with the fearful talk of lockdowns and shutdowns.”
Fact check: Mississippi is on pace to set a record death total from COVID-19 in the month of January. As of Jan. 26, at least 948 Mississippians have died after contracting the virus in the month of January alone — by far the highest monthly death total since the pandemic began. The state’s total number of COVID-related deaths is 5,852.
On the day Reeves delivered the speech, the state reported 75 deaths — one of the highest single day totals on record.
ECONOMY AND JOBS
Reeves: “Despite the once in a century pandemic, Mississippi’s economy actually grew year over year. Think about that.”
Fact check: The governor apparently was referencing the fact that there was more capital investment in the state from businesses in 2020 than in 2019. Still, it is doubtful the state’s gross domestic product grew year over year. Final numbers for the state’s gross domestic product (total value of goods produced and services provided) have not been released by federal or state officials.
Projections from the state’s University Research Center was for the GDP to contract 4.3% year over year. But based on the numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Mississippi’s third quarter GDP growth was the 10th best in the nation at 39.5% — but still 2.6% below state’s GDP for the fourth quarter of 2019. Overall, though, the GDP bounced back strong nationally and in the state after a dismal second quarter when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit. In the second quarter, the nation’s economy contracted at a 31.7% rate compared to 20.9% for the state. For the most part, the more populous states had greater economic declines and greater jobs loss.
Mississippi lost a smaller percentage of its jobs during the year than did the nation as a whole.
But in the past four years, including 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state’s GDP has grown 0.4% compared to the national growth rate of 0.8%, and the state has actually lost a greater percentage of jobs than the nation as a whole.
Reeves: “We were the third-best state in the country for job recovery (in 2020).”
Fact check: The governor was citing an Empower Mississippi report, analyzing Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for non-farm jobs from February through November of 2020.
Mississippi did appear to fare better than most in terms of jobs lost during this period of the pandemic, with the Magnolia State losing a little more than 28,000 jobs. According to a University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy analysis of BLS statistics for the period, Mississippi was tied with Alabama for third in terms of lowest percentage of loss of jobs for the period, at -2.4%. It also noted that Mississippi from October to November added 3,800 jobs. Alabama, which had lost nearly 50,000 jobs for the period, added 6,600 jobs from October to November.
According to a Mississippi Today analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Mississippi ranked third for the smallest percentage of jobs lost, just 1.4 percent, between December 2019 and December 2020. The state lost 16,400 jobs over the year.
Reeves: “Mississippi… had more tourism spending return than any other state in the country – we were number one!”
Fact check: Reeves’ office said he was citing a December report from the U.S. Travel Association. It shows that year-over-year, Mississippi’s percentage loss of weekly travel spending was in the teens — lower than other states – equaling about $30 million less a week spent by tourists here compared to last year.
But Mississippi’s tourism industry did take a hit in the pandemic. Fiscal year 2020, which began in July, saw about 20 million visitors spending $5.5 billion, compared to fiscal 2019 with nearly 25 million visitors spending $6.6 billion. From February through August, Mississippi saw a decline of 6.4% in leisure and hospitality jobs. But other states were hit far worse, including Hawaii, at nearly 53% and Louisiana at 20%.
Reeves: “… Mississippians don’t want welfare. They want to work.”
Fact check: Granted, Mississippians do want to work. But the state also is one of the poorest in the nation and one of the nation’s most dependent on federal spending and on “welfare programs.”
Mississippi is the fourth most dependent on total federal spending, according to the Tax Foundation, with 43.3% of its state revenue provided by the federal government. In addition, Mississippi has the fourth-highest number (14,825 per 100,000 population) of its residents on welfare programs such as Temporary Aid For Dependent Children, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs and others.