By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Phil Bryant, an elected state official since 1992, dismissed claims from his opponents in the upcoming gubernatorial election that it was time for new ideas and new experiences in Mississippi government.
The Republican lieutenant governor, who previously was elected to the office of auditor and legislator, is the only candidate in the race who has served as an elected state official. The other candidates have experience on in local government or in the private sector.
Bryant is viewed as the front-runner in the Aug. 2 Republican primary and in the November general election.
“This is a very complex system,” Bryant said Thursday during a meeting with the Daily Journal editorial board. “I think it is advantageous to know how it works, to know how it needs to be reformed and to have a proven record.”
He said it is common political rhetoric to talk about the need to replace all “career politicians.” He said he was in the private sector as an insurance fraud investigator and was advancing in his company.
“I was just not making a difference,” said the Rankin County resident and Delta native. “This gives me a chance to make a difference. This gives me a chance to make people’s lives better.
“I have been a reformer and a change agent since I walked into the Legislature in 1992.”
Bryant, 56, focused much of his interview with the Daily Journal on the need to concentrate on health care in Mississippi.
He has set a goal of having 1,000 additional physicians in the state by 2025. To do this, he said the University Medical Center must expand and open additional opportunities for doctors to do their residencies outside of Jackson. An additional program that might attract doctors to underserved rural areas, Bryant said, is exempting a portion of the income of doctors from the state income tax.
“The reason we have terrible health problems is we treat ourselves badly,” Bryant said. He said there must be efforts to cut down on obesity, smoking and especially on teenage pregnancy.
He said far fewer people smoke today because of the intense public relations campaign waged by government and other entities on the dangers of smoking. He said such an effort must be made to prevent teenage pregnancies.
“We have to take the attitude that it is just not good for teenage women to have babies and start at every level to work on preventing that,” he said.
Part of the problem, he said, “are areas in the state where grown men father children of teenage girls and people shrug their shoulders. We can’t keep allowing that.”
Bryant said reducing the number of teenage pregnancies, which are often costly because of medical problems paid for by Medicaid, will provide the state additional funds to tackle other issues, such as early childhood education.
Before making a commitment on early childhood education, Bryant said he wants to see the results of the Building Blocks program, a privately funded pilot program designed to gather data. He conceded, though, the state must tackle the issue. Mississippi is the only Southern state not to put funds into early childhood education.
Also in the area of education, Bryant advocated the consolidation of certain administrative functions, but not of complete school districts. For instance, each county could have one transportation director or human resources director to serve the school districts in that county.
He reiterated his support for reforming the state budgeting process and developing true performance-based budgeting.