In his annual State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves memorialized a long, cruel 2020 from the steps of the Mississippi Capitol. He called for the state to seize the initiative and capitalize on opportunities present in the misery of the pandemic.
“This is a time of global upheaval and chaos. And it is in those times that fortunes are made. We need to make Mississippi’s fortune today. This is the moment in our history to do it,” Reeves said.
Behind the governor lay nearly a year of an uncontained pandemic and a hospital system just beginning to contain the crush of the virus’ worst wave. Still, Reeves struck an undeniably triumphant note with his address. “Mississippi is unconquerable,” he said, quoting Tennessee William’ Don Quixote: “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks!”
Mississippian tenderness may outlast the virus, but the resurrections of Camino Real do not await the nearly 6,000 Mississippians lost to the disease. Fast-approaching victory, Reeves rhapsodized, “is visible in the long hours of nurses, teachers and first responders … in the lives saved by ordinary heroes in the ministry of care—physical, emotional and spiritual, on a daily basis.”
This labor, Reeves declared, allowed the state to remain open where others closed, to reopen “as quickly and as widely as we possibly could.”
“We’ve been safe, but not stubborn,” Reeves said, chiding those who would have tightened restrictions in place of Mississippi’s laissez-faire approach. “Life cannot be lived in perpetual idleness, in isolation,” he explained.
The fruits of these efforts are borne out in numbers, which Reeves proudly presented. “We were the third best state in the country for job recovery,” he said. “Despite the once in a century pandemic, Mississippi’s economy actually grew year over year. Think about that.”
‘We Can Win’
“Mississippi’s fortune,” in Reeves’ plan, is the drive for capital investment. At the heart of the governor’s speech lay his plans for the elimination of the state income tax, a “bold move” the governor sees as the key to drawing businesses to Mississippi.
Reeves’ raw shrink-government libertarianism shined through his vision for the state. “I understand that it is often good politics to act like something from the government is a gift. … We have to be clear. The government does not have anything that it does not first take from the taxpayer,” he said.
To Reeves, eliminating income tax puts the state in the arena with the economic powerhouses of the South. “I don’t want to compete with the Mississippi of last year,” he proclaimed. “I want to compete with the best of the best: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas. Because I know not only can we compete, we can win. We can get in the ring with anybody, and we can leave with more jobs and higher wages.”
Teachers are likely the first group to see those higher wages. Reeves rededicated himself to passing the $1,000 teacher pay raise, meant to be first of several efforts meant to benefit educators in 2020. The 2021 version of that bill has already passed in the Senate.
“I’ll be eager to sign any raise that the Legislature can send me. Our teachers have earned it,” the governor said.
Flanking Reeves was the great symbolic victory of 2020—the new state flag, now formally codified into law. The governor lauded the state’s “new banner” as a signal to the nation, in his eyes, that Mississippi is open for business. It remains to be seen if the State of Mississippi’s celebration of Confederate Heritage Month every April, which Reeves last proclaimed only months before the retirement of the old flag, will vanish with the old Confederate banner.
But absent from the governor’s speech was any mention of criminal-justice reform, a potential salve to another of 2020’s many moments of crisis. Alesha Judkins, Mississippi state director at FWD.us, an immigrant rights and prison-reform lobby, decried Reeves’ silence on the issue in a statement today.
“Mississippi currently has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country, and since December 2019, more than 100 Mississippians have died in prison. The state’s mass incarceration crisis is costing taxpayers millions of dollars and costing far too many Mississippians their lives,” Judkins wrote.
Criminal-justice reform bills are already in progress this session, but whether or not they can clear the bar of the gubernatorial veto that derailed them last session is still unclear.
‘The Road Out of the Poorhouse’
Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, responded to the governor’s address in a follow-up broadcast. The state’s Democratic coalition has a different vision for the future, one more concerned with reinvestment in the state’s social services than the extinguishing of its income tax, he made clear.
On the Democratic agenda are teacher pay raises above and beyond what the Senate has already passed, more rapid support for struggling small businesses and the ever-present goal of Medicaid expansion.
Simmons quoted the words of the late Gov. William Winter. “The road out of the state’s poorhouse runs by its schoolhouse,” he said. “Mississippi has still not completed construction of the road out of the poorhouse.”
Echoing Simmons’ sentiments, the Mississippi AFL-CIO released a statement highlighting the “bleak picture of the social and economic conditions experienced by the men, women and children of Mississippi.”
The union federation referenced a report from the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University, which identified Mississippi’s workers as having the lowest household income and median hourly wages in the country.
Simmons was sharply critical of the state’s small-business relief program. “If we are being honest, COVID small business dollars have moved too slowly—and the Back to Business grant program has been embarrassingly inefficient.”
The short-sighted politics of Mississippi Republicans have cost Mississippi billions of dollars, and left our hospitals hanging on by a thread,” said Simmons, adding that “if Gov. Reeves will not expand Medicaid, it is past time for him and Republican leaders to come up with an alternative.”
Simmons had one last barb for the governor’s strident opposition to Medicaid, which Reeves has previously described as an insidious tool of big government infiltration.
“Identity politics do not pay the hospital bills,” Simmons said.