By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
PHILDADELPHIA — First-term Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant makes no apologies about his belief in small government and his pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy.
That’s made the Rankin County Republican popular with tea party groups his first seven months in office, but could cause heartburn for people who believe government can play a substantial role in making life better.
Lawmakers might want to keep Bryant’s outlook in mind as they look ahead to the 2013 session, which is likely to include debates over merit pay for teachers — which Bryant supports — and a possible expansion of Medicaid, which he opposes.
Bryant made his beliefs clear this month at the Neshoba County Fair, first during his speech to an overflow crowd in and around the tin-roofed pavilion and later during interviews with reporters.
He said that even with the federal government picking up most of the tab, Mississippi can’t afford to add an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people to Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation. In May, the state had 641,454 people enrolled in Medicaid, or about 22 percent of its nearly 3 million residents.
If Mississippi bumps up to about 1 million people on Medicaid, Bryant said: “We are necessarily going to have to raise taxes, or we’re going to have to make dramatic cuts in other state services.”
Bryant is no fan of the federal Affordable Care Act. He said it’s too big and expensive and should be scrapped.
Bryant was asked whether insurance companies should be required to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions, one of the provisions of the federal act.
“I think so,” he said. “I think there have got to be some guidelines, though.”
Bryant, a frequent runner who has said he was overweight as a child, questioned whether it’s fair to make insurance coverage easily available to people who are “abusive” of their own health.
“One of the things I’m trying to do, again, in Mississippi, is to say we have some responsibility for our health care,” Bryant said. “The other thing I think this (federal law) does is to say, ‘Don’t worry about it. Live. Party. Smoke. Drink. Eat. You ain’t doing what’s wrong. We’re going to take care of you.’ That’s not a good system to base health care on.”
Bryant’s merit pay proposal is being praised by leaders in the Republican-majority House and Senate, but is sure to be opposed by teacher unions, which traditionally have supported more Democrats than Republicans. Bryant said he believes there are ways to address the concern that principals might dole out pay raises to friends and withhold them from others.
Bryant said merit pay should reward teachers whose students show academic improvement, keeping in mind that teachers face different challenges because of students’ social or economic backgrounds.
“We know, for example, if I’m a teacher in Northwest Rankin, I might not have as many challenges as a teacher in Sunflower County,” said Bryant, whose two children graduated from Northwest Rankin, a relatively affluent public school in a Jackson suburb. Sunflower County is in the economically struggling Delta.
He said a teacher whose class is failing, or whose own skills are lacking, could be put on an improvement plan.
“But eventually, I think you just have to say, ‘This might not be what you want to do for the rest of your life,'” Bryant said, “so that hopefully we can find a new teacher that will take that job that is desirous of doing that.”
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