Rural Mississippians, as I wrote last week, will have a big say in the August Republican primary runoffs. Politicians who ignore their plight may be in for a big surprise.
Take, for example, Tippah County on the northern border of the state. Republican voter turnout in the first primary was up 4,809, a 732% gain. A key issue in Tippah County appears to be delay after delay to four-lane Highway 15.
The future economic growth of Ripley could depend upon completion of the project, Mayor Chris Marsalis told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “I know of three (businesses) that passed on our initial location because access to a four-lane highway was too far away,” Marsalis said. His sentiment was echoed by Doug Martin, the mayor of Blue Mountain.
Ashley Furniture chairman Ron Wanek said, “Highway 15 is long overdue to be improved,” calling it hazardous, challenging, and dangerous.
Lack of funding for highways in Mississippi is why the project has been delayed, said Mike Tagert, the outgoing northern district transportation commissioner. “You’ve got to pay for the system that you want to build and maintain,” he told the newspaper. He added that the fairest and most equitable way to do that “is through a fuel tax increase.”
Of the two candidates in the GOP runoff for governor, only Bill Waller has shown a willingness to do that, proposing to offset an increase in fuel taxes by reducing personal income taxes. His opponent Tate Reeves continues to reject any increase out of hand.
Similar stories can be found in rural counties with struggling hospitals, teacher shortages, and mental health challenges. Waller has put forth ideas to address these issues while Reeves has not.
Interestingly, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor Delbert Hosemann also favors addressing these issues. Hosemann has said he is committed to the construction and maintenance of our roads and bridges, wants to reform Medicaid to ensure all Mississippians have access to affordable, quality healthcare and mental health care, and wants to increase teacher pay to deal with the teacher shortage. Hosemann hopes to pay for much of this from savings generated by “running the government better.”
Of course, these are not the only issues facing rural counties: decreasing population, particularly from the loss of young people, while the proportion of elderly residents continues to surge; opioid addiction coupled with increased drug abuse and suicides; and physician shortages now coupled with nursing shortages are among the other issues causing rural distress.
If Republicans choose candidates unwilling to do what it takes to tackle rural issues, Democrats are ready to jump in.
Jim Hood wants to expand Medicaid to strengthen rural emergency care and provide more rural mental health care, raise teacher pay to deal with the teacher shortage, raise the gas tax to fix and build new roads and bridges, and force opioid manufacturers to help pay for opioid addiction treatment.
Jay Hughes, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, wants to expand Medicaid to increase healthy outcomes and save medical jobs in rural areas, increase teacher pay to deal with the teacher shortage, and favors construction and maintenance of our roads and bridges.
Will rural voters weigh in on these issues?
The real question is when, on August 27th for Republican solutions or on November 5th for Democratic solutions.
» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicate columnist from Meridian.
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