By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant paid homage to each other Friday night as they engaged in their first and only scheduled debate before the Nov. 8 general election.
Bryant, the Republican nominee, and DuPree, the Democratic candidate, remained on friendly terms throughout the one-hour event that was televised live statewide from the Mississippi College School of Law.
Bryant said “as a small boy growing up in Moorehead” in a working-class family, he “never dreamed” he would be running for governor. He also acknowledged DuPree’s campaign – as the first black nominee from a major political party – is historic.
“I am humbled that you allow me to stand here and run for the greatest job in Mississippi,” said DuPree, speaking to about 200 people in the Law School Auditorium and a statewide audience that might have been larger if not held on a night that is traditionally dominated by high school football.
“I hope we have changed the way you politick,” he said. “We are not talking about each other, but about the issues.”
Bryant, who is believed to be the heavy favorite, agreed.
“I think we have changed the dynamics in politics for years to come,” he said, adding people “will say those two had a reason to go after each other, but they didn’t.”
The event was sponsored by AARP of Mississippi and many of the questions concerned health care. Bryant said he was concerned about the cost to Mississippi of the new federal health law “that some call Obamacare.” He said it could add 400,000 people to the state’s Medicaid rolls.
“That is impossible for us to afford,” Bryant said. “That bothers me tremendously.” Bryant said he supports the health care exchange, which will allow people to shop for cheaper insurance, and believes more lawsuit relief for providers will hold down the cost of health care and make it more affordable to more people.
DuPree pointed out that the state would not have funds to enact a health care exchange if not for the federal law. Plus, he pointed out that in the first years of enactment – in 2014 – the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of new Medicaid recipients and will never pay less than 90 percent.
He said the fact that half a million Mississippians do not have insurance “is a sad thing,” plus, the public already pays for the care of the uninsured when they end up in the emergency room for more costly treatment.
Both said the state must do more in the way of preventive care to improve the overall health of the state’s population. Bryant said he wants to have an additional 1,000 physicians practicing in the state by 2025.
DuPree said Hattiesburg has been named the healthiest large city in the state.
DuPree touted his experiences in Hattiesburg, saying he has worked to include diverse groups in decision-making. He said he has increased employment in Hattiesburg, has not raised taxes, has not cut services and has not laid off city workers, despite the recession.
He said he achieved those outcomes by making each department more efficient.
“The state is no different,” DuPree said. “You need to go through every department.”
Bryant touted his experience and said he has worked with Gov. Haley Barbour to bring jobs to the state. He also said he has had to work across party lines – both as state auditor and now as lieutenant governor. He said he did not fire the staff of the previous Democratic auditor when he assumed that position and as lieutenant governor appointed Democrats to key committee chairs in the state Senate.
“The talents and experience of many of the Democrats in the Mississippi Senate could not be wasted,” he said.
Neither proposed raising taxes, though DuPree said legislative studies indicate that about 80 percent of the state’s largest businesses pay no state taxes.
“Don’t say I am anti-business,” he said, adding his record as mayor of Hattiesburg would refute that charge. “…But I believe in tax fairness.”
Bryant said if the companies were taxed they might leave the state.
The studies indicate that most of the companies paying no taxes are large national retailers.
The winner of the Nov. 8 election will replace Barbour, who is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term.