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Republican Mississippi governor ignores Medicaid expansion and focuses on jobs in State of the State

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said he intentionally avoided hot-button issues and political conflict in his State of the State speech Monday, instead calling for legislators to support economic development by funding roads, ports and bridges.

Reeves never mentioned one of the most-discussed issues so far this legislative session — the possibility that Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the U.S., could extend Medicaid benefits to hundreds of thousands more of its residents

He urged lawmakers to establish 12 magnet schools that concentrate on mathematics and engineering, and to create apprenticeship programs so high school students could develop career skills.

Reeves, who was inaugurated for his second term in January, said government should interfere in people's lives as little as possible.

“We must be prudent and cautious,” he said. "We must demand lower taxes and regulations. Their money circulating in their towns will do more than any additional government program ever could.”

Mississippi is among 10 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid eligibility to include people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level, or $20,120 annually for a single person. Expansion is allowed under the federal health overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010.

Reeves has long opposed Medicaid expansion, saying he does not want more people dependent on government programs. But Republican legislative leaders are saying this year that they are open to discuss the issue, possibly tied to a work requirement.

In the Democratic response to the governor's speech, Rep. Robert Johnson III, of Natchez, criticized Reeves for ignoring health care and poverty. Johnson said Reeves has failed to push for economic development in parts of the state that are struggling.

“He'll tell you that it’s the strongest our economy has ever been. And we ask: For who, governor?” Johnson said. “Who are you going to believe, Mississippi? The governor, or your lying eyes?”

In January, legislators met in special sessions and approved state incentives for two large economic development projects — a plan by four companies for a factory to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles in Marshall County, near the Tennessee state line, and a plan by Amazon Web Services to develop two data centers in Madison County, north of Jackson.

Reeves said Monday that Mississippi must become “masters of all energy.”

“We must and will do it all — from oil derricks on our Coast to solar panels in the Delta," Reeves said. "I don’t care if it’s green wind power or black crude oil or anything in between. It’s going to be made in Mississippi. All of the above and as much as we can do. As long as it is reliable, it is resilient, and it is affordable.”

Emily Wagster Pettus, The Associated Press