Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic challenger Brandon Presley drew sharp contrasts over their views on policies to help rural hospitals and cut taxes while trading blows over accusations of corruption during the only debate of the campaign Wednesday night.
WAPT hosted the one-hour debate with moderators Troy Johnson and Megan West asking the candidates their views on high-profile issues either will likely face if elected to serve as governor for the next four years.
Medicaid Expansion, Rural Hospitals
Democrat Presley said he believes Medicaid expansion is key to helping save Mississippi’s struggling hospitals, noting that the policy could open up access to as many as 300,000 working Mississippians; he also cited estimates that it would lead to the creation of thousands of jobs in the state.
“We have lost $1 billion a year by not expanding Medicaid in Mississippi,” he said.
Reeves has long opposed Medicaid expansion and in the past frequently referred to it as “welfare” or “Obamacare expansion.”
“It takes individuals that are currently on private insurance and puts them on government insurance,” he said.
Medicaid expansion would cover working Mississippians who make too much for traditional Medicaid but not enough to afford commercial insurance or to qualify for federal subsidies. If Mississippi adopted expansion, the federal government would cover around 90% of the cost and provide about $1 billion per year to fund it.
The governor proposed a Medicaid reimbursement reform plan on Sept. 21 that could bring an extra $689 million yearly to Mississippi hospitals. The U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services must approve his plan before it is enacted. But Presley said the plan will not work as well as Medicaid expansion.
“And then he came up with a scheme that’s actually going to tax our hospitals $178 million, does nothing to help our rural hospitals and does absolutely nothing for 230,000 working Mississippians,” the Democrat said.
During the debate, Gov. Tate Reeves touted the state income tax cuts he presided over as lieutenant governor and the ones he signed into law as governor. The Republican added that he wants to eliminate the state income tax, a controversial policy he has pushed for during his time in office despite failed attempts at the Legislature.
“In 2016, we passed the largest tax cut in Mississippi history. In 2021, we passed an even bigger tax cut,” Reeves said. “Combined, we’ve cut taxes by over $1.2 billion for the people of this state. I do believe that eliminating the income tax is the best policy for our state.”
Brandon Presley also proposed his own set of tax cuts. At 7%, Mississippi has the highest grocery tax in the nation, which disproportionately affects working-class residents. The Democrat said he wants to cut the grocery tax as well as cut car tag fees in half. But he said he does not support Reeves’ plan to eliminate the state income tax.
“Tate Reeves’ tax plan is such a scheme he couldn’t even get it passed in a super majority … made up of his own party,” Presley said.
Welfare Scandal, Corruption
Throughout the campaign and again during the debate, Brandon Presley accused the incumbent governor of playing a role in the misspending of $77 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. But neither state nor federal investigators have accused Gov. Reeves of any crime or wrongdoing related to the welfare scandal. No publicly known evidence so far has shown that Reeves knew officials in the Mississippi Department of Human Services were redirecting welfare funds to illegal projects.
“You’d have to believe in time travel to think I was involved in the TANF scandals. It happened from 2016 to 2019,” Reeves said, referring to the time when he was lieutenant governor before he assumed Mississippi’s highest office in January 2020. The investigation into the scandal began in mid-2019 and officials announced the first arrests in February 2020.
Reeves fired attorney Brad Pigott, who was leading a civil investigation of the scandal in July 2022, with the governor telling reporters at the time that the lawyer was too “focused on the political side of things,” Though Presley accused him of removing Pigott as part of a coverup, Reeves said at the debate Wednesday night that he did so to hire a law firm with more experience and resources to take on the mammoth case. The new law firm, Jones Walker LLP, has continued investigating Pigott’s lines of inquiry as part of the State’s efforts to claw back millions in welfare funds.
“If you think Tate Reeves will take on corruption, I’ve got some beach-front property in Nettleton to sell you,” Presley said on the debate stage, referring to his northeast hometown.
The Democrat’s plan to stop corruption includes allowing the Mississippi Ethics Commission to hire an independent investigator “that could not be fired by either the governor or the Legislature.”
Reeves lobbed aspersions of his own at Presley, accusing him of accepting money from solar panel company Silicon Ranch while overseeing the State’s public utilities. Reeves said that three other public service commissioners went to jail for “doing exactly what Brandon Presley is doing.” But Presley denied those allegations.
Under state law, public service commissioners cannot accept campaign donations from representatives of public utilities they are in charge of regulating. But in an Oct. 31 report, Public Service Commission General Counsel Ross Hammons told Mississippi Today Reporter Taylor Vance that “the commission has consistently found that Silicon Ranch, as well as other companies, are not public utilities” and therefore their donations are not subject to that law. The report also noted that Brent Bailey, a Republican member of the commission, has accepted donations from Silicon Ranch.
Supporting Small Businesses
When asked about helping small Black-owned businesses, Gov. Reeves said his goal was for Mississippians to have not only a career—not just a job.
“We have more people working today than any time in state history,” the Republican candidate said.
Brandon Presley said people can credit recent growth in jobs to the work of local aldermen, city councilors, supervisors and economic development partnerships—not the incumbent governor.
The Democrat argued for supporting small “Main Street” businesses by working with the Mississippi Development Authority, which has not had a director since the last one resigned in August 2021 amid sexual misconduct allegations. If elected, Presley said he would find a director to appoint to the position.
He also argued that construction companies working on infrastructure projects in the state should hire Mississippians and not people from out of state.
“To ignore the business portion of the Black community is both amoral, but it’s also economically stupid for our state to do,” Presley said.
During the debate, Gov. Reeves touted improvements in education during his time as lieutenant governor and governor, citing increased graduation rates and improved reading scores. He said “conservative reforms” the State adopted while he was lieutenant governor “laid the groundwork” for those achievements.
In 2022, the Legislature passed and Reeves signed a bill giving teachers an average $5,140 pay raise, bringing teacher pay in Mississippi closer to the southeastern average. But Presley said that is not enough.
“We need to get teacher pay to the national average to keep, attain and attract school teachers to Mississippi,” he said. The Mississippi Educators Association has endorsed the Democratic candidate.
The Legislature has only fully funded public education under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program’s funding formula twice since adopting it in 1997. Presley said Reeves should have done so during his time as lieutenant governor and governor, spanning from 2012 until now. The State has not fully funded MAEP since 2008 when Reeves was still the state treasurer and did not have power over legislation.
“When the Legislature and the governor do not fully fund education, it falls upon local boards of aldermen, local supervisors, local city school districts—to do what? Raise your property taxes,” Presley said.
When a moderator asked about his views on tackling crime in Jackson, Gov. Reeves cited the creation of the Capitol Complex Improvement District and the expansion of the Capitol Police to more than 150 officers.
Earlier this year, he signed the controversial House Bill 1020, which gave white state officials the power to appoint judges in the majority-Black capital city to handle cases that locally elected judges would normally oversee; the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down part of the law in September.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Jackson is safer today because of the men and women of the Capitol Police who get up every day and put on their uniform,” Reeves said.
Brandon Presley said he would focus on reducing crime in Jackson, but added that the capital city is not the only place in the state that has problems with crime. He said many small-town sheriff’s departments do not have deputies on patrol and that he wants to make sure all counties have a police presence 24 hours a day with a minimum of two deputies on duty.
“We need to fund more cops on the street,” Presley said.
Reeves retorted that he did not think Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba would approve of more police officers in his city.
Gov. Reeves said he was “proud that Mississippi led the charge to overturn Roe v. Wade,” but did not answer moderator Troy Johnson’s question about whether he would sign a law criminalizing patients who leave the state for an abortion.
Instead, the governor noted that the vice chairman of Emily’s List donated to Brandon Presley and claimed the group supported abortions “up and even beyond a baby being born.” Despite Reeves’ claim, there is no such thing as an after-birth abortion, since killing an infant would be murder; neither Emily’s List nor any other organization backing Presley has advocated for murdering babies.
But Emily’s List does support abortion rights. The governor questioned why Presley would accept a check from the group when the Democrat calls himself “pro-life.” The Democrat responded that he does not take policy advice from campaign donors.
“I’m not going to sell my soul for $20 for campaign money. So if somebody donates to my campaign, it doesn’t change my beliefs for one second,” he said.
Presley also shared his stance on abortion.
“My faith teaches me to be pro-life, and I support exceptions in our law for rape, incest and life-of-the-mother. I’m pro-life, and I have been forever,” Presley said.
Current state law bans nearly all abortions, with limited exceptions for rape only until the sixth week of pregnancy and vaguely defined exceptions for life-threatening pregnancies.
Like Reeves, Presley did not give a direct answer when asked if he would support criminalizing people who travel across state lines to get an abortion legally in another state.
Mississippians will vote for governor and other statewide, legislative and regional offices on Nov. 7, 2023. Any eligible registered voter who registered in person by Oct. 9 or had their voter registration application postmarked by Oct. 10 can cast a ballot in the general election.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Contact your local circuit clerk or election commissioners for polling place information. Voters must bring an accepted form of voter ID to the polls. For more information, visit sos.ms.gov/yall-vote.