Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his State of the State Address from the south steps of the State Capitol in Jackson, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday in his third state-of-the-state address heaped praise on teachers and law enforcement and promised them more pay, vowed to crack down on violent criminals while also helping convicts successfully re-enter society and decried the evils of abortion and teaching of critical race theory.

He called again for eliminating the state’s income tax and vowed to focus on workforce development and training and said, “at the end of my time as governor we will measure our success in the wages of our workers.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reeves gave his address outside, on the Capitol’s south steps instead of from the state House floor.

FULL TEXT: Gov. Tate Reeves’ 2022 state-of-the-state

Despite natural disasters and the pandemic, Reeves said, “I can still stand before you tonight and declare, without reservation, and without qualification, that the state of our state is not only strong, but stronger than it has ever been.”

Reeves cited education improvements over the last decade such as increased graduation rates and decreased dropout rates, and said, “it looks like a miracle” for a state that has perennially been last in many socioeconomic and education measures.

“But it is not a miracle,” Reeves said. “It is the product of dedication of our teachers, a result of the intelligence of our people, and conservative, common-sense reforms enacted by many of us here today.”

Reeves thanked teachers for working through the pandemic and said, “That is why we must give our teachers the pay raise they deserve.”

Measures pending in the House and Senate would provide teachers their largest raise in recent history, each larger than the raise Reeves had proposed to lawmakers.

READ MORE: Senate passes teacher pay raise

“I’m confident that in this session, working together, we will get a significant teacher pay raise done,” Reeves said. “It is my number one priority.”

Reeves called on the state Department of Education and lawmakers to ensure critical race theory is not taught in Mississippi schools. Education officials have said it is not being taught in Mississippi, but it has become a major political issue nationwide.

“We will not teach that your race determines your status as a victim or oppressor,” Reeves said. “No school district shall teach that one race is inherently superior or that an individual is unconsciously or inherently racist because of how they are born … We will strive for equality, and our education will support that aspiration.”

READ MORE: Every Black Mississippi senator walked out as white colleagues voted to ban critical race theory

Critical race theory, which is primarily an academic discipline at the university level, is designed to explore the impact of racism on various aspects of American society.

Reeves said the Mississippi abortion ban case before the U.S. Supreme Court “is on a path to preserving millions of lives for generations to come.”

“There is no excuse for America’s abortion laws to be closer to the Chinese communists than the rest of the western world,” Reeves said. “If we are successful before the Supreme Court, our work will not be done. We must acknowledge and champion the fact that being pro-life is about more than being anti-abortion. We should be doing everything in our power to make Mississippi the most family-oriented state in the country.”

If Mississippi prevails in the Supreme Court and the national right to an abortion is overturned, the United States would be outside the norm of most western democracies where some form of abortion is legal.

Reeves said the state’s coffers are overflowing, and despite many saying this is happening in most states because of billions of dollars in federal spending, the governor credited this to conservative state leadership and his refusal to shut the state down during pandemic spikes.

“We are governing in a time of plenty,” Reeves said. “Good decisions have brought us a great harvest.”

Reeves reiterated his support for eliminating the state’s income tax. And despite having criticized fellow Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn’s proposal to eliminate the income tax but offset that with increases of sales and other taxes, Reeves praised the effort on Tuesday.

“Speaker Gunn and Chairman (Trey) Lamar, thank you for your hard work and your commitment to this ongoing effort,” Reeves said. “If we can eliminate the income tax, we will achieve an historic victory for this state. We can become a place that money flows more freely, and all Mississippians will benefit.”

Reeves said that when he took office, the state’s corrections and prisons system was a shambles and “we were facing prison riots that resulted in serious violence.” He said great improvements have been made and praised the corrections commissioner he appointed, Burl Cain for the turnaround.

Reeves — who in 2020 battled with lawmakers who were trying to enact reform and lower prison population and vetoed their legislation — vowed to help push for more reentry and job training programs for inmates and to fight recidivism. He said that will save taxpayers money in the long run.

Reeves vowed to help end the “deadly cycle” of violence in Jackson, where “In 2020, our capital city set a record of 130 murders. In 2021, it increased to over 150 murders…That is unacceptable.” He noted there was a shooting in downtown Tuesday afternoon just blocks from where he was delivering his speech on the Capitol steps.

READ MORE: Show of force: Gov. Reeves says state officers will fight crime in Jackson

“That is why I have championed an expansion of the scope of our Capitol Police force,” Reeves said. “… It’s why I proposed doubling the size of our Capitol Police … Doubling the size of our Capitol Police, is the first, most immediate action we can take within the state’s jurisdiction. We have the ability to do it, and we must.”

Reeves, using federal pandemic funds at his discretion, recently authorized $1,000 in one-time hazard pay for sworn state law officers who served during the COVID-19 state of emergency and said, “Today, I call on the Legislature to do the same for local law enforcement.”

Reeves offered encouragement for any Mississippian’s in despair during “this time of fear” and wondering “if their lives are worth keeping.”

“I want to tell all of you—anyone who needs to hear it—that you are loved,” Reeves said. “You are valued. Your life has purpose and your life has meaning. Your state needs you. Even if you don’t know it, your life is a blessing to others. We are glad that you are here, living and with us.”

The decision to hold the annual joint legislative session on the Capitol grounds instead of the House chamber was made because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many legislators, statewide elective officials and others attended the event on a crisp, but sunny late afternoon in Jackson, but attendance appeared to be less than for many past state-of-the-state speeches.

Much of Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons’ Democratic response to Reeves centered on health care – battling the pandemic and expanding Medicaid as is allowed under federal law to cover the working poor.

Acknowledging the nearly 7,000 deaths in the state from COVID-19 and the more than 700,000 instances of Mississippians contracting the disease, he said Democrats support using a portion of the state’s $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus-relief funds to aid health care providers in their struggles against the pandemic.

In addition, he said, the state should expand Medicaid to help in the state’s battle against COVID-19. Reeves, who has been a staunch opponent of expanding Medicaid, did not mention the subject in his speech.

But Simmons said,  “As Omicron continues to push case counts to sky-high levels, hundreds of thousands of working  Mississippians are left without healthcare coverage.  It is no better time than now to afford those Mississippians the access they need.”

Mississippi is one of 12 states to not have expanded Medicaid.

Expanding Medicaid would mean “$10 billion to $12 billion dollars in total revenues (from the federal government) over the next decade. More healthcare access would create an estimated 9,000 high-paying medical jobs in our cities and towns in Mississippi,” Simmons said.

In the area of education, Simmons said he and other Democrats are glad that Republicans finally agree with them that a significant pay raise is needed for Mississippi teachers. He said the same is true for state employees.

“A pay raise for teachers and other state employees should be a regular occurrence and it is encouraging that Republicans are now joining with Democrats to raise our teacher’s pay to the southeastern average,” he said. “Democrats firmly believe that teachers and state employees deserve a raise.  The future of (our) state is how we reward and retain our workers.”

Simmons also touted the federal infrastructure bill that was supported by both Mississippi U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, and Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican.

“If President Biden, Congressman Thompson, and Sen. Wicker can reach across the aisle and deliver an investment of this magnitude, then there is no reason we can’t come together, work together, and tackle any issues we face as a state,” Simmons said.

Simmons also said there is a need to address other issues, such as making voting in the state easier and enhancing jobs training.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.