Mississippi leaders give contrasting visions of state’s path

Attorney General Jim Hood (left) and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (AP Photos/ Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. — Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood on Wednesday criticized Mississippi’s Republican-led Legislature on highways, taxes and other issues that could be relevant in the governor’s race two years from now.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, meanwhile, said Mississippi is improving its education system and the state is a good place for businesses to invest.

Reeves and Hood are widely seen as likely candidates for governor in 2019, when the seat will be open because of term limits. They were among the politicians speaking at Hobnob, a social gathering sponsored by the Mississippi Economic Council.

Reeves said that during his six years as lieutenant governor, Mississippi has improved its high school graduation rate and put a greater emphasis on ensuring children can read well by third grade.

“We’ve got to work together to talk about the good things that are going on in public education in our state,” Reeves said. “Do we have challenges? Of course we do. But so does every other state in the nation.”

Hood criticized legislators for cutting taxes for “billionaire” corporations.

“So many get elected by thumpin’ on the Bible and talking about what good people they are, but they don’t read it,” Hood said. “They don’t read in the New Testament where … Jesus talked about taking care of the widows, the orphans and the elderly. And we’re kicking all those people to the curb, giving tax cuts to large, out-of-state corporations.”

About 1,200 business people attended Hobnob at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. A jazz band played jaunty tunes as speakers were introduced and spectators shelled and ate peanuts while politicians talked about their plans for the state.

After appearing at Hobnob, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant told reporters that he’d like voters to decide two issues in 2018 — the design of the state flag and a proposal to increase some taxes and fees to pay for highways. One U.S. Senate seat and all four of Mississippi’s U.S. House seats will be on the November 2018 ballot. Legislators could add issues such as the flag or transportation funding.

“I’ve always liked direct democracy,” Bryant said. “If people want to raise taxes, let’s give them an opportunity to have a voice in it. I think you’ll hear a lot of talk about putting that on the ballot, perhaps along with the state flag. I think it would be a good opportunity to … let the people of the state of Mississippi speak with one voice on each of those important issues.”

People who voted in a 2001 statewide election chose to keep the Confederate battle emblem that has been on the Mississippi flag since 1894. The Mississippi banner and other Confederate symbols across the South have come under increased scrutiny since the 2015 murders of nine black worshippers in a South Carolina church by a white man who had posed for photos with the rebel flag. Bryant has said repeatedly that if the Mississippi flag is to be redesigned, it should be done by the voters rather than by the Legislature.

Republican Sen. Dean Kirby of Pearl recently said he would like a statewide vote on whether to increase the gasoline tax and some fees to help pay for improvements to highways and bridges. The Mississippi Economic Council has been asking legislators to put millions more dollars into transportation, but Republican legislative leaders have blocked those proposals, with Reeves saying he opposes tax increases.