In a contentious head-to-head debate with Democratic challenger Brandon Presley, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) defended his record, including his controversial decision not to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid.
The question of whether Mississippi should join the 40 other states that have accepted federal support made available by the Affordable Care Act has dominated Public Service Commissioner Presley’s bid to unseat Reeves in the election next Tuesday.
And sure enough, the debate moderators from WAPT-TV in Jackson asked Reeves about it first, saying that it was the most requested question by viewers.
“Where do you stand on the expansion of Medicaid in Mississippi?” co-moderator Troy Johnson asked.
The query was phrased in a way that left Reeves some room to suggest that he was open to changing his mind about the issue, but he instead used his answer to reiterate his opposition.
“At the end of the day, what we have determined is it does not make sense for the people of Mississippi,” Reeves said. “It does not make sense for the people in Mississippi because if you were to add 300,000 people to the Medicaid rolls, about 100,000 of those individuals would actually be currently on private insurance.”
Reeves went on to suggest that some of those privately insured individuals would essentially be forced out of the private coverage and onto the Medicaid rolls. In fact, Mississippi’s state economist found that thousands of people who currently get coverage from their employer or purchase health insurance on the ACA’s exchanges would enroll in Medicaid, but it does not say whether that would be because they were dropped from their private coverage.
“It’s much like what President Obama said when he passed the Affordable Care Act: He said, ‘If you like your doctor, you can keep it,’” Reeves said. “That didn’t turn out to be true. And the fact is, if you’re out there on private insurance, you might lose yours if my opponent’s proposal goes into effect.”
Reeves also said in neighboring Arkansas and Louisiana, which did expand Medicaid, rural hospitals are in poor financial shape.
“We’re not talking about Arkansas. We’re not talking about Louisiana. We’re talking about Mississippi,” Presley shot back. “I want to be governor of the state of Mississippi. I’m not running in Arkansas and Louisiana.”
Presley, who regulates state utility companies, instead highlighted Oklahoma’s and South Dakota’s decisions to expand Medicaid as evidence that states where former President Donald Trump won easily have warmed to the idea of expanding the health care program for low-income residents. Presley also correctly noted that Mississippi’s state economist found that Medicaid expansion would net the state money, even if the federal government picks up only 90% of the cost of the expansion itself.
Referring to the 230,000 uninsured adults that the Commonwealth Fund estimates would gain coverage from Medicaid expansion, Presley said, “These are folks who are sacking groceries, folks who are out roofing houses, people who are working in hotels and out scrubbing toilets and changing sheets on beds ― people that are taking jobs that Tate Reeves would never take, that are working every day, that deserve health care.”
“If he had quit lying on me, I’d quit telling the truth on him.”
“It is an idea that’s time has come. It’s past time to do it,” he added. “And as governor, I will take steps on Day One to expand Medicaid.”
The debate, Reeves’ and Presley’s only in-person matchup, was not a genteel affair. It was more of a televised brawl with a feisty Presley going on offense from the very beginning.
On taxes, Presley said: “I’m glad you use the word ‘scheme,’ because Tate Reeves’ tax plan is such a scheme he couldn’t get it passed in a majority ― supermajority ― House and Senate made up of his own party.”
On dueling attack ads, Presley said: “If he had quit lying on me, I’d quit telling the truth on him.”
On the need to eliminate the state’s sales tax on groceries, Presley said: “If you go out tonight and buy feed for a hog or feed for a cow, you pay zero sales tax to feed that hog or that cow, but if you want to feed your baby or you want to feed your family, you pay the highest sales tax in America.”
Presely, a former mayor of the small town of Nettleton, often added heft to his jabs at Reeves with rural aphorisms that sounded at once folksy and merciless.
When Reeves claimed that Presley would yield to local Democratic leaders, like the mayor of Jackson, who are less committed to fighting crime, Presley fumed at him.
“Let me say this, the governor needs to clean out his ears, because I didn’t say I would take orders from local officials ― clean your ears out!” he declared as he turned his attention to Reeves directly. “What I said was you should work with local officials.”
A calmer Reeves accused Presley of lying, violating corruption laws and unfairly smearing his brother.
Asked to respond to Presley’s charges that he was involved in either committing or covering up crimes related to the state’s public corruption scandal over the misuse of $77 million in cash welfare funds, Reeves replied, “You would have to believe in time travel to believe that I was involved in the [Department of Human Services] scandal. The fact of the matter is I was sworn in as governor in January of 2020. It all happened before I was governor.”
But Presley pressed Reeves to answer for his decision to fire an independent attorney investigating the scandal and seeking to claw back funds.
“You fired the independent investigator in this case when he got a little too close to your buddies, a little too close to your campaign contributors, a little too close to those who finance your way of life, and, guess what, then you fired him. Then you fired him,” he said, haranguing Reeves for refusing to make eye contact with him while he spoke. “Look at me! I’m talking.”
Reeves, who eventually complied, to Presley’s satisfaction, insisted that the termination was based solely on the need to hire a law firm with greater resources.
“The person that was doing it was an individual sole practitioner and just didn’t have the resources available,” Reeves said. “He was also a big campaign donor to my opponent.”
The race between Reeves and Presley is likely to be determined in significant part by whether enough voters in the conservative state find Presley’s plans to expand Medicaid and clean up corruption compelling enough to look past his partisan affiliation.
Reeves, who touted former President Donald Trump’s endorsement on Wednesday, did his best to tie Presley to President Joe Biden and the national Democratic Party.
“He’s gonna govern like Joe Biden has governed America,” Reeves said in his closing statement. “And so if you believe in your heart that Joe Biden has done a good job as president, with inflation up by 20% on groceries, all prices up far greater than that ― if you believe Joe Biden’s done a good job, then he’s your man.”