The three Republican candidates for Mississippi governor met on the same stage for the first time during the primary election campaign Tuesday evening in Jackson.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, state Rep. Robert Foster (R-Hernando) and former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. faced off in a debate held at the studios of WJTV in Jackson.
The broadcast station hosted the debate and it was broadcast to a statewide audience, with Memphis station WATN among the affiliates carrying the hour-long discussion of issues.
The lively exchange included agreement on some issues, but differences on others, between Reeves, Foster and Waller.
Among the top issues of the debate early on was a question regarding salaries for the state’s teachers. Mississippi ranks near the bottom of Southeastern states for starting salaries of school instructors at $35,890 a year. Only Arkansas at $33,000 a year is lower than Mississippi among five neighboring states. Louisiana’s starting salary for teachers is at more than $40,000 annually, while in Tennessee, it is about $37,000 a year.
Reeves would not pin himself down to a specific figure that Mississippi should move its starting teacher salary to, although the lieutenant governor did remind his challengers and the viewers that teacher pay has been raised each year he has held his current office.
However, Foster and Waller did say salaries should increase to the Southeastern average and should be around $40,000 a year.
“The best way for every kid in Mississippi to get a quality education is to have a quality teacher in every classroom,” said Reeves. “The best way to have a quality teacher is to spend more money in the classroom and less money in the district office. We need to increase teacher pay every single year to the extent it is possible within the confines of the budget.”
“I want us to be competitive with the states around us and whatever they are paying, we need to be equal to or better than them,” Foster responded. “We’re losing some of our greatest and brightest teachers right across state lines. If we continue to do that, we’ll continue to have a teacher shortage.”
Waller felt the state could reach that $40,000 figure in the next year.
“I think we can do it in the next legislative session,” said Waller. “My pledge is that we’re going to have a teacher pay raise every year until we get to the Southeastern average, not just in an election year.”
Reeves responded by questioning Waller’s statement about getting to $40,000 in the next legislative session.
“If you include the 41,000 teachers that are out there, that’s about a $275 million expense that he (Waller) said you could get to in the next year,” Reeves noted, with Waller countering by saying, “We have a surplus this year of about $400 million. I’d like to place it before the legislature early in February. I’d like to fence off all that money early before the special interests come in.”
On the heels of Foster taking a stand against having a female reporter traveling with him without another person with them, the candidates were asked about how they would ensure diversity in gender and race in their administrations, if elected.
Foster said his stance is nothing unusual for other leaders in the business world and in government. His position won’t be a detriment to the office if he was the state’s governor.
“Many other men and women that are leaders of megacorporations have the same policy of an open door when they are in meetings so that’s there’s no closed door, and also not to ride around on my own with someone of the opposite sex,” said Foster. “There’s always going to be a staff member present, and that’s not going to stop anyone from being able to do their job.”
Reeves commended Foster for the stand he took, but when pressed about how he would ensure women a spot in his administration, Reeves said to look back at his time in public office, beginning when he was State Treasurer.
“My deputy state treasurer was a female, Liz Welch,” Reeves said. “I have a record of proving exactly that.”
Responding to the question, Waller said, “You always have an open door policy, that you always have an atmosphere that is non-threatening and that you don’t put yourself in a compromising position,” Waller said. “This is what corporate America does, so this is nothing new or novel about that.”
On other issues, all three agreed they would be against the legalization of marijunana for medical purposes.
An increase in the gasoline tax to help fund bridge and road improvements was also addressed. The current gas tax of just over 18 cents a gallon has not been raised in more than 30 years, according to statistics.
Foster said he would not agree to raising any tax without a “swap” or full restructuring of the tax structure. He added he would repeal the state income tax in favor of more user-based fees, including a higher gasoline tax.
Waller would also favor a tax swap, as he called it, which would mean raising user fees on fuel, for instance, in favor of taking the four-percent income tax bracket out.
Reeves said he would oppose a gas tax increase.
All three candidates would not support a state minimum wage beyond what the federal minimum wage is. Each candidate also said the Confederate battle flag on the state flag does not inhibit Mississippi’s ability to attract new business, with Waller and Reeves reminding the debate panel the state has already voted on the flag issue and that a unilateral change by the legislature would be opposed by them.
In their closing remarks, Reeves said he believes that he is the “only conservative running for governor, and I am strong enough to take the fight to the liberals.”
Foster used the “Drain the Swamp” theme that President Donald Trump used in his successful election campaign and compared it to the state capital.
“I believe we have a swamp in Jackson and the lieutenant governor and (Attorney General) Jim Hood are part of that swamp,” Foster said.
Waller touted his background as State Supreme Court Justice and said he’s not satisfied with the status quo in education, career training, health care, roads and bridges.
“I believe the people of Mississippi deserve better,” Waller said. “I am the conservative Republican that can win in November.”
Bob Bakken is Managing Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.