By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The campaign for lieutenant governor has devolved into a debate over whether Treasurer Tate Reeves, the front-runner to capture the open lieutenant’s governor’s seat, is a watchdog for the taxpayers or a lapdog.
Reeves’ Republican primary opponent, Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes of Gulfport, has run a television ad saying Reeves, who has claimed that watchdog mantle for himself, is actually a lapdog.
“He is telling the voters that he has been a staunch voice for decreasing government debt,” Hewes said. “But the record shows a drastically different Tate Reeves. One would think our treasurer would be a little more accurate about his numbers.”
The primary point of contention centers around the state’s bonded indebtedness. And as with so many political issues, each side has legitimate points, but also both might not be telling the whole story.
To better grasp the issue, it’s necessary to understand how the state’s bonded indebtedness works.
The Legislature approves the sale of state bonds to finance primarily long-term construction projects. Most years those basic projects needed to keep state office buildings, mental health facilities and higher education buildings from falling into disrepair have been funded through bond issues.
As treasurer since January 2004, Reeves has often voiced concerns about the rising state debt. In his television ads, he’s especially critical of the Legislature – hence Hewes – for that debt.
The way to hold down the debt, the ad says “is to have someone in office willing to stand up to people who want to borrow, borrow, borrow, and say enough is enough.” Reeves says he is that person.
But Hewes says Reeves has had a hand in building that debt. He released ads depicting Reeves as a lapdog, not a watchdog.
The basis for Hewes’ ads is that Reeves, as treasurer, is one of three members of the state Bond Commission, which also includes the governor and attorney general. Hewes said that as a commission member, Reeves voted 415 times to issue the bonds passed by the Legislature and only voted no three times.
In the minds of many, the Bond Commission was established not to have a say on whether the bond bills passed by the Legislature are issued, but to manage the complex process to get the best rate and to issue the bonds when a project is ready.
But the Bond Commission has taken on a more prominent role in the process. On the campaign trail, Reeves often refers to a confrontation he had with Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, to illustrate his political toughness. That confrontation centered on the fact McCoy was upset that the Bond Commission had not issued a bond the Legislature approved.
The law gives the Bond Commission the authority to issue the bonds, but does not mandate that it does. Reeves said recently the Legislature could change the law to mandate the issuance of any bond it passes, but thus far has not.
Reeves does not dispute that he has voted as a member of the commission 415 of 418 times to issue the bonds approved by the Legislature. But Reeves said that is not the whole story.
Reeves said there are bond bills the commission opts not to put on the agenda for a vote. Thus, they are not counted as a vote for or against the issuance, because they are not issued.
To further prove his point, Reeves said during his tenure, the Legislature has approved bond bills totaling $3.5 billion, but $1.5 billion of that total has not been issued, though he concedes that part of that $1.5 billion still can and will be issued.
Reeves added that during his tenure the state’s bonded indebtedness has increased from $3.2 billion to $3.8 billion, or an increase of 18 percent. In the previous 12 and a half years, which covers Hewes’ tenure as a member of the Senate, the state’s bonded indebtedness spiked 400 percent.
“The only difference (in the first 12 years and the last eight years) is that Haley Barbour and I were on the Bond Commission,” Reeves said.
But the other side of that story is that when Hewes came into office the state’s debt was less than $700 million. The escalation that came after that resulted from a consensus that various repairs and renovations were needed to prevent state buildings from falling into disrepair and that long-term borrowing with low interest rates was the way to address those needs.
Both Hewes and Reeves say the state’s bond debt has gotten out of hand. And indeed, in recent years, most of the actual growth in the state’s debt has been for bonds for economic development projects, such as the $300 million in bonds issue to entice Toyota to Blue Springs.
But Hewes said that is the main gripe he has with Reeves and his campaign rhetoric. He said the treasurer says he is a state watchdog and criticizes the Legislature, yet, in reality Reeves has little, if any, role in holding down the state debt. At the same time, Hewes said, Reeves praises Barbour for the successful recruitment of such companies as Toyota to the state. Toyota would not have come without those bonds, Hewes pointed out.
Hewes said, “He seems to want to have it both ways.”
The escalation of the state’s debt did slow during Reeves’ tenure, which coincides with Barbour’s. Many politicians, both Hewes and Reeves, played a role – as allowed by their respective positions – in slowing that growth, but it was the governor who had the most influence through the threat of a veto to hold down the debt. And he used that threat often.
On a related matter, published reports have cited that Reeves has received more than $400,000 in campaign contributions from attorneys and others hired by his office to work on issuing the bonds. That allowed Hewes to further expound on his claim Reeves is a lapdog and not a watchdog.
Reeves has countered that the contributions are allowed by law and played no role in his decisions on whether to issue the bonds or not.
Hewes also has carried the lapdog arguments to Reeves’ role as a member of the boards that oversee the state employee pension program and the prepaid college tuition program. Both programs have been impacted by the recent recession and the corresponding drop in the stock market.
But Reeves is only a member of the Public Employee Retirement System Board and has a limited role. Most blame any problems with the system on the economy and enhanced benefits provided to employees over time by the Legislature.
And the actuary for the prepaid college tuition program has said it remains sound. And Hewes, as a leading advocate in the Legislature for establishing the program, has not called for its termination, as has occurred in other states.