July 18, 2019
TUPELO • With a bevy of policy proposals and a pronounced willingness to break with his own party’s leadership over issues like educational policy and infrastructure funding, Republican gubernatorial candidate William “Bill” Waller Jr. met with the Daily Journal’s editorial board Thursday.
In the course of an interview with a panel of journalists and community leaders, Waller pressed his vision for the state’s future, emphasizing education, healthcare and infrastructure as the core pillars of his campaign.
Waller, 67, was for 21 years a member of the Mississippi Supreme Court, 10 of those years as chief justice. His father was governor from 1972 to 1976, but this campaign cycle is the younger Waller’s first foray into a partisan election.
“When I retired from the Supreme Court, I had a lot of interest from a lot of people who felt like we needed a new direction in the state,” Waller said Thursday.
Competing against Waller in the Republican primary are first-term state Rep. Robert Foster of DeSoto County and second-term Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
Without directly mentioning Reeves by name, Waller provided a policy platform at odds with key positions staked out by Reeves in recent years and offered himself as a more cooperative, pragmatic candidate.
On education, Waller has positioned teacher pay raises and increased vocational education as major priorities.
Indeed, pay raises would be among the earliest issues he wants to tackle in his first legislative session as governor if elected.
“Every dollar we can do, I am going to ask the legislature early in the session to fund pay raises for our teachers,” Waller said.
He also said incentives to keep teachers in the state are needed, including scholarships and student loan repayment aid.
Waller expressed skepticism about the so-called third grade reading gate, a policy touted by Jackson’s current Republican leadership as a major educational accomplishment of the Gov. Phil Bryant era.
Current law dictates that every Mississippi third-grader must pass a reading test before advancing to the fourth grade. Waller wants a panel to review that policy and determine if any changes are needed.
At the center of his vocational education plans, Waller wants programs that allow high school students to graduate and enter the workforce immediately, whether that be in the manual trades or in the industrial sector.
“We’ve got to do a better job of connecting high school and employers,” Waller said.
On healthcare, Waller continues to advocate that the state consider some kind of limited expansion of Medicaid, a policy he describes as a conservative-minded reform effort while citing Mike Pence’s leadership in Indiana as a model to follow.
And with respect to the state’s widely-acknowledged problems with roads and bridges, Waller wants a gas tax increase, likely offset by tax cuts elsewhere.
On both policies, Waller’s public position puts him at odds with the solutions favored of late by the legislature.
Waller is especially quick to criticize a plan crafted last year that created a lottery and directed the funds toward infrastructure spending.
“What they passed in that special session is not a road program,” Waller said, insisting that lottery revenue should flow into the general fund.
The only Republican running for governor who hasn’t been in the legislature in some capacity during the last four years, Waller said his tenure as the head of the state’s judiciary offered hands-on training working with lawmakers.
“I think being head of a branch of government is a unique qualification,” Waller said.
The Daily Journal has invited all major candidates for governor to sit down with the newspaper’s editorial board to discuss their candidacy.
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