Two GOP governor hopefuls advocate teacher pay, health access

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller, left, and Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, shake hands prior to a Republican gubernatorial debate for governor of Mississippi in Starkville, Miss., Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Both candidates have said they will not meet alone with a woman who isn't their wife. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Two of the three Republican candidates for Mississippi governor agreed on many points during the first debate of the 2019 campaign season, each saying he would make a long-term commitment to increasing teacher pay, improving highways and bridges and making health care more affordable.

Retired Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. of Jackson and first-term state Rep. Robert Foster of Hernando spoke to an audience of about 100 people Tuesday night at Mississippi State University. The person with the most money in the governor’s race, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, declined the MSU College Republicans’ invitation to take part in the debate.

Foster took a jab at Reeves, referring to reports last year that questioned whether the lieutenant governor improperly pushed for a $2 million access road to his upscale neighborhood in Flowood.

“If we would prioritize taking care of our public highways rather than paving private driveways, that would be a big help,” Foster said.

Foster said Mississippi should eliminate its personal income tax and increase the gasoline tax to help pay for infrastructure. “Everybody needs to pay as they go,” he said.

Waller also advocated an increase in the gasoline tax as a “user fee” to help pay for infrastructure. He said it would also be paid by people from other places who stop to buy gasoline while driving through Mississippi.

“We need to look at ways that we can make the tax system appropriate and equitable,” Waller said, and mentioned that other taxes could be reduced.

Both candidates said Mississippi needs to strengthen vocational education and job training for high school students who don’t want to go to college.

Both also said Mississippi should consider some sort of Medicaid expansion, possibly seeking permission from the federal government to let people buy coverage. Medicaid provides health insurance coverage for the needy, aged, blind and disabled, and expenses are paid by the federal and state governments. Nearly 721,000 people are enrolled in Medicaid in Mississippi, about 24 percent of the state’s roughly 3 million residents.

Under the federal health law that then-President Barack Obama signed in 2010, states have the option of expanding Medicaid to the working poor. Mississippi Republican leaders have declined to do so, citing concerns that the federal government might not honor its promise to pay for the expansion.

Party primaries are Aug. 6, and the general election is Nov. 5.

The current governor, Republican Phil Bryant, cannot seek a third term.

Nine Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for governor. The current attorney general, Jim Hood, has raised the most money among the Democrats, with just over $1 million on hand at the end of 2018.

The most recent campaign finance reports were filed at the end of January, showing fundraising through 2018. Reeves had $6.3 million in two campaign funds and Foster had $12,297. Waller retired from the Supreme Court early this year. He started his gubernatorial campaign fund in late February and has not yet had to file a report showing how much money he has raised.

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