Lee Yancey is a Ripley native and an ordained Baptist preacher, who has made the transition from church work to money management and state senator for Rankin and Madison counties. He is now a Republican candidate for treasurer, who has been endorsed by Congressman Gregg Harper and will run against Lynn Fitch and Lucien Smith in the August primary. He is a former pro-life lobbyist and works at Woodridge Capital Portfolio Management. Yancey and his wife, Courtney, have two teenage children.
Q — What is your background?
A — I was born in Ripley. My dad became a Baptist preacher, so I grew up like a military brat all over the state. I went to Mississippi College where I majored in religion and minored in English and German. I went to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and got a master of divinity degree in biblical studies. Later I got my doctor of ministry degree in leadership administration with an emphasis in conflict management.
Q — How do you think your ministry work affects your work in politics?
A — The church is a great training ground for politics. You have to learn to work with people. You have to solve problems. You do public speaking. You minister to people and take care of them. As a state senator and as a treasurer, you take care of your constituents.
Q — How did you transition into politics and money management?
A — After seminary, Courtney and I moved to Conyers, Ga., to be associate pastor for youth and activities. We moved back to Meridian in 1996. I was associate pastor at First Baptist Church. I knew that I loved politics and didn’t know how to make the move from ministry to politics. I had an opportunity to go to the Mississippi Baptist Convention Christian Action Commission. My job for 2000 to 2007 was to lobby the Mississippi Legislature on pro-life and pro-family issues. When the Senate seat opened up when Charlie Ross ran against Phil Bryant for lieutenant governor, I ran for Charlie’s old Senate seat and won that in 2007. (A friend at church asked me to come work) at Wood Ridge Capital Portfolio Money Management Company in business development. I passed the Series 65 exam which allows you to give investment advice for a fee. We do stock investments, 401(k)s, pension plans, lots of the things that the state treasurer does on a larger scale. We don’t do bonds. In the Senate I’m on eight or nine committees including the Finance Committee and the Ethics Committee.
Q — Why do you think you are the best candidate for treasurer?
A — I think it’s very evident that I’ve proven myself as the fiscal conservative choice for state treasurer.
When I ran for the Senate, I signed a pledge from Americans for Tax Reform by Grover Norquist that I would not vote to raise taxes. I’m one of the few that actually kept my promise. One of the first tax votes that we had was the cigarette tax, and I’m an ordained Baptist minister. I don’t like cigarettes, but I don’t think taxing them more solves the problem. I think it just makes government bigger. So I voted against it.
This past year, we paid off $270 million in bond debt. I thought, “This is a great opportunity not to authorize more than $270 million.” And the bond bill came out, and it was $422 million. I voted against it, and people told me, “Lee, you can’t afford to vote against this bill. All the Senators have their pet projects in here, and representatives. You’re running statewide. You’re going to need their help across the state.”
We’re $4 billion in debt. We’re at 30 percent of our debt ceiling. Moody’s has started assessing our state’s credit rating based on our unfunded pension liability plus our bond debt. Our unfunded pension liability at any given time, depending on who you ask, is $8 to $10 billion, and we’re over $4 billion in debt. So say we’re $14 billion in debt. That’s about 15 percent of our GDP, and the only state doing worse than us looking at it that way is Hawaii.
Q — How much of the current $400+ million bond bill would you recommend approving?
A — I would look at each individual item in the bond bill. I would say, “We paid off over $270 million last year. I’m going to prioritize all the way up – not necessarily to 270, but I wouldn’t go past 270.” If there are economic development projects that we bond that pay for themselves… then I would look at that a little differently.
Q — What do you think about issuing bonds to pay for loans to businesses that are startups coming to Mississippi?
A — Again it would depend on the kind of assurance that we would have that they would pay those back and how quickly they would pay those back, because we can’t loan money to everybody. We can’t loan money to every business. And there are businesses out there now who are upset that we gave big money to Toyota and Nissan, but we didn’t give it to them. And they’ve been in the state for 40 years.
Q — You wanted to talk about the state retirement plan.
A — I think it is a great opportunity. There is a pension crisis going on across our nation. Defined benefit plans are really good when the economy is really good.
Financially, our state is doing OK in that we have $200 million in reserves and that constitutionally we have to have a balanced budget every year. But where we need to make sure we don’t get in trouble is too much bond indebtedness and our unfunded pension liability. A good pension plan is at least 80 percent funded. Ours is only 64 percent funded.
Any time we pour money into the pension fund, we take it away from education. We take it away from law enforcement, from mental health, from everything else. There ought to be a way to have a state retirement without having to pour additional money into it over and above what’s already been agreed on. I’m going to look for that compromise.
Q — Any ideas for what that might be?
A — All options are on the table. Our investment portfolio needs to be looked at. Certainly, you don’t have to be 100 percent invested, and when you go through a crisis, you ought to have some just sitting in cash in reserve. I’m not a member of the PERS board, and I feel like it’s a little bit closed. I think something has to be done, whether it’s for new hires or something like that.
More on Yancey:
Favorite movie: “Braveheart”
Favorite Food: Joe B burger at CS’s in Jackson
Favorite books: Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose and All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
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