August 21, 2019 10:45:50 AM
The eve of tonight's GOP runoff debate found the two candidates in much different surroundings.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stood among a dozen or so men who represent the party establishment at the state GOP offices in Jackson.
Gathered to anoint Reeves as next in the line of ascension, former Gov. Haley Barbour, Gov. Phil Bryant and key Republicans in the legislature gave Reeves their enthusiastic support.
Barbour, who is considered something of the patriarch of the current GOP that has dominated state politics over the past two decades essentially gave Reeves birthright ownership of the Governor's mansion.
"This election is about policy, this is about issues," Barbour said.
Meanwhile, Tuesday found Reeves' challenger, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr., among another small group of men in a setting far different than party headquarters.
Sweating in the mid-day sun as the din over machinery and trucks forced him to yell his brief message, Waller chose to visit the APAC asphalt plant in Hamilton to make his case for the seat once occupied by his father, who beat Lt. Gov. Charles Sullivan, then the establishment candidate of the reigning Democratic Party in an upset in 1971.
For Waller, the race is about policy, too.
The difference is that Waller is actually talking about it.
You get the feeling that if the outcome really doesn't come down to issues, Waller has a puncher's chance.
While Reeves was basking in the glow of his party coronation and dropping all the empty catch-phrases, Waller was talking about his plan for roads and bridges.
With a poster-board showing the roads and bridges he hopes to repair, expand or build sitting in the gravel parking lot at APAC, Waller said he'll push the legislature to pass an 8-cent-per gallon increase in the state's fuel tax while offsetting that cost with the elimination of the 4-percent state income tax bracket.
Waller estimated that will generate about $160 million annually, twice the amount of road/bridge funding that is projected by the state lottery, which was passed in a special session last year.
Reeves' position is that the lottery money will provide the money necessary to put the state's road/bridge infrastructure in good working order.
It will not.
In 2014, the Mississippi Economic Council produced a study that said putting the roads and bridges in good order would require $3.5 billion in funds, $350 million per year.
No one has done much to dispute those finding since then.
With the funding from the lottery capped at $80 million annually, Reeves' plan would raise less than a quarter of the MEC's recommendation.
"The lottery won't even raise enough money to fix the 400 bridges that need to be repaired or replaced," Waller noted. "The lottery just won't do what needs to be done."
But neither will Waller's.
Waller's plan, which includes not only bridges, but road repairs and road expansions, would generate around $160 million, Even if you added the $80 million in lottery proceeds - which Waller said he hoped to go to teacher pay - the total still only provides about two-thirds of the funds the MEC says is needed.
There's another problem, too. The state's department of revenue estimates that eliminating the 4-percent tax bracket would cost the state $165 million in revenue.
It sounds an awful lot like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
That's the corner Republicans have been painting themselves into for years now.
They've never met a tax they didn't want to cut, which may be popular, but often is reckless. When the inevitable shortfalls arrive, as they are certain to do, finding the money needed to keep the state functioning is problematic.
The surest path to obscurity for a politician is to advocate an increase in taxes. There is simply no tolerance for it, especially among conservatives.
So what we have here are two plans that come up short.
Reeves' plan is laughably bad. Waller's is better.
Waller, by the way, favors expansion of Medicaid in an effort to boost the state economy and save rural hospitals. Reeves won't even discuss to subject, other that to say he's against "expanding Obama-care."
Likewise, Waller says he's committed to raising teacher pay annually until it reaches the Southeast average, another subject Reeves has yet to talk about at all.
Waller has more plans; Reeves has more rhetoric.
He also has the blessing of the GOP Establishment.
That might well be enough.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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