Waller: Reeves not ‘good alternative’ for governor

Bill and Charlotte Waller
Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

Bill Waller is the son of a former Mississippi governor. And in legal circles, he has name recognition as a member of the state Supreme Court for 21 years, the last 10 as chief justice.

But stop the man and woman on the street and their looks are a little more puzzled when asked who he is.

And Waller understands that. He also understands the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination for governor in August remains current Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

After all, Reeves has been jockeying for the position for years and has compiled a $7 million warchest. But Reeves is the wrong choice for Republicans and the state, Waller says as he launches a campaign this week to convince voters of that.

When asked if he is to the right or left of Reeves politically and philosophically, Waller hedges slightly, “I am a conservative Republican.”

But a conversation with him brings a reasonable discourse, largely free of the shrill partisanship that so often is a part of legislative talk in Jackson.

Waller hopes that by the time the voting is said and done in late summer, more voters will know and appreciate that approach.

“I am a pragmatist who wants to attack problems. Where we differ is on roads and bridges, health care, education,” Waller said of his campaign and his chief opponent.
Robert Foster is the third person in the Aug. 5 Republican primary.

Waller is critical of state leaders on both sides of the aisle for foot-dragging for more than a decade on addressing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. He says Reeves’ signature initiative — the $250 million bond bill, state lottery and diversion of some Internet sales tax revenues — is nowhere near enough to truly address one of the state’s most important economic development and job-creation tools.

“From what everyone tells me, the $250 million we are borrowing is simply not adequate. It’s not even a scratch on the bridge needs, much less the roads. What’s happening is we are still at work on the 1987 road plan and we had no provision for maintenance of those roads,” the former judge explained.

“I can’t explain why we have waited so long to act, why we haven’t had the courage to do something.”

During a special session last August, the Legislature approved the $250 million which mostly is going to local road and bridge projects. Lawmakers also approved creation of a lottery with part of the money going to pay back the bonds and for future road needs. Internet sales tax money also is going to city and county governments for infrastructure.

But the plans won’t be fully implemented for another three years.

But in the end, maintenance of state roads, 19,000 miles of them, still is short-funded, according to most experts.

“We’ve only got money to maintain 1,900 miles, not 19,000. And it is a bad, bad precedent to tie a sin tax to infrastructure,” he said of linking the lottery to roads.

Instead, Waller says he favors raising the state fuel tax, which hasn’t been increased in two decades. Many segments of the transportation industry support it if the money is dedicated to infrastructure.

“We have to look at all the options, but the user tax obviously is one of the fairest and we will be capturing money from out of state people, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of our fuel taxes are paid by people from out of state,” Waller stated.

Reeves has opposed a fuel tax increase and not let it come to a vote in the Senate.

“It’s a problem we keep kicking down the road,” Waller added, noting it’s also irresponsible to continue to borrow money for road projects without having a way to repay the bond.

Waller and Reeves also disagree on health care issues, especially expanding Medicaid, which Reeves repeatedly has rejected.

“I simply don’t understand it when we can get eight or nine federal dollars for every dollar we spend. There are a number of plans out there that are working and that we should look at,” Waller said, citing one in Indiana implemented under now-Vice President Pence and one recently implemented in Arkansas.

“We have almost a crisis in our health care system in this state and we are ignoring ways to help. We’ve got rural hospitals on the verge of bankruptcy and in many cases, those are the only access to health care in those communities,” he lamented.

“We have a responsibility to insure Mississippians have health care options,” he continued, noting the health care industry is a major employer in the state and particularly in rural communities.
“I think we can expand coverage at no cost to the taxpayers by making recipients put in a small fee, making the medical community bear a small share of the burden, spread the costs and by doing so, expand opportunities tremendously,” he continued.

On education, he said he would find the money for more than just a “meager” pay raise, which is what he called the salary hike of $2,000 over two years being pushed through for teachers this year.

“My pledge will be that we will get a pay raise for teachers every year until we reach the Southeastern average. We are the lowest paid teachers in the South and we can’t continue to lose our best teachers and our best young people to other states because of money. We have to pay them if we are going to attract good teachers,” he said.

In his biography, Waller touts how he “consistently worked to reshape the court in a conservative direction, helped end lawsuit abuse and sought to repair the state’s judicial reputation to foster an attractive environment for economic growth.”

He notes that under his watch, the courts worked with other branches of government to get judicial pay raises through fee increases and not by taking from the broad tax base. At the same time, the courts revamped criminal justice rules to insure suspects got speedier access to the courts.

He received numerous judicial honors as well as in the National Guard and Army Reserve in which he served for 30 years.

Waller is the son of Mississippi’s former governor, William “Bill” Waller Sr., and Carroll Waller, the former First Lady of Mississippi. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 1974 and received his law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1977. He and his wife, Charlotte, have three children and two grandchildren.

When he decided last fall to retire from the bench, he said he was going to spend time teaching and pursuing other interests.

But calls from across the state helped change his mind.

“We have some real issues in this state. I have the political presence and understanding in face of what is not a good alternative,” he said of the reason he listened to those who urged him to run.

As for the current national debate over President Trump’s emergency declaration to build a wall at the nation’s southern border, Waller said he had “no idea” whether the president’s move violated the Constitution.

But he did agree “we have a border security issue that is more than just illegal aliens,” he said, referring to illegal drugs and sex trafficking and the fact the courts are “filled with cases involving crystal meth, much of which comes from Mexico.”

When asked whether he would send National Guard members from Mississippi for a year of duty supplementing border patrols, Waller said he likely would, regardless of who was in the White House.

“That is one of the missions of the National Guard. If there was a reasonable basis for the President’s request, I probably would send them,” he acknowledged.

While progress is being made in both the courts and the Legislature on criminal justice reform to help inmates try to work back into society, work still needs to be done.

“There is no doubt inmates need a passage back into society. Some of the things being done will reduce prison populations. It could be possible to take some of the savings and put into work centers and re-entry programs,” he stated.

But he sees the main issue as a simple one that crosses all topics.

“It’s trying to work with the House and Senate to pass meaningful legislation to help the citizens. That’s what it boils down to,” he concluded.