TUPELO • Statewide candidates pitched different ideas about economic development and the state’s future at a political forum on Friday hosted by the Community Development Foundation at the Elvis Presley Birthplace.
The most notable differences came between the two lieutenant governor candidates. The candidates disagreed over the best way to fund infrastructure and improve education.
State Rep. Jay Hughes, the Democratic candidate in the race, advocated for blue collar workers and told the crowd to put party labels aside and vote solely for a candidate who will grow the state economically.
On education, Hughes emphasized that the state has to retain more of its recent college graduates in order to increase population.
“The reality is that education is the greatest equalizer we have that no one can take. No one can steal,” Hughes said. “We can pretend all day long our kids aren’t going to another state, but they are.”
On infrastructure, Hughes said there needs to be dedicated money going toward infrastructure projects because the first thing large companies look for when building a new business is access to quality infrastructure.
After his speech, Hughes told the Daily Journal he would first try and eliminate wasteful government spending before he advocates for increasing the gasoline tax, but there does need to be additional funding for infrastructure projects.
“I also think it’s not realistic to rely on lottery money,” Hughes said. “We’re the last one to the game with that. I don’t think it’ll get anywhere near $80 million. We need a sustainable regular amount, and that is only going to come through a gas tax that hasn’t been changed in over 30 years.”
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, the Republican candidate in the race, touted his current record in office and called for a boost to state employee salaries.
On infrastructure, Hosemann said there will be new roads constructed in Northeast Mississippi if he is elected, but he is reluctant to raise the state’s gasoline tax until he eliminates wasteful spending from state government. He said he is also anticipating around $80 million from the state lottery to be put toward infrastructure projects.
“We’ve been meeting with our MDOT people on where the prospects are. We’re missing the road from New Albany to Ripley.”
Hosemann later told the Daily Journal he plans to make sure teachers’ salaries are increased every year and that the salaries go beyond the average pay for teachers in the southeastern portion of the country.
“I’m not tethered by the fact that there’s some Southern average. We need to pay our teachers more,” Hosemann said. “Every year, we will increase our teacher’s pay, and I will also tell you we are going to increase the pay for state employees.”
The Mississippi Legislature has decreased funding for the Mississippi Department of Transportation for the past several years. Even though the State Legislature appropriates funding for MDOT, it does not come out of the state’s general fund. MDOT only receives money through the state’s gasoline tax and from federal money.
Attorney General Jim Hood is the Democratic candidate for governor and highlighted the need to build better roads, cut the state’s grocery tax and expand healthcare to more Mississippians in rural communities that don’t immediately have access to an emergency health facility.
“We need to build public roads and not private driveways,” Hood said. “These promised tax cuts are supposed to have spurred the economy, and it hasn’t. It hasn’t worked traditionally. Some areas it does in economic development. We can build roads. Eight thousand people swinging hammers is how you grow the economy.”
For education, Hood advocated for providing free community college statewide and providing apprenticeships to recent college graduates.
“Early childhood education is the best economic development dollar a state can spend,” Hood said. “We need to pay our teachers the Southeastern average. We need to fund our schools.”
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is the Republican candidate for governor and was absent at the forum. However, Pat Nunnelee, the father of the late U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, spoke on Reeves’ behalf.
Nunnelee told CDF members he is supporting Reeves because he believes Reeves will grow the state economically.
“We need a governor that relies on the private sector and not the government,” Nunnelee said “If you’re opposed to higher taxes, then you believe government, like the rest of us, should prioritize spending to work within a budget.”
Statewide candidates will face one another in the general election on Nov. 5.