By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
BILOXI (AP) — The two Republican candidates for Mississippi lieutenant governor on Saturday criticized each other’s records in public office, particularly the role each played in creating or controlling the state’s bond debt.
During a forum at the Mississippi Press Association convention in Biloxi, state Treasurer Tate Reeves of Flowood said the next lieutenant governor needs to come from outside the Legislature.
“My opponent — he’s not a bad guy,” said Reeves, 37. “In fact, he’s done some good things in our state. He’s done some things that are conservative in our state. Unfortunately, where it comes to spending and debt, it’s not where he’s been conservative.”
State Senate President Pro Tempore Billy Hewes of Gulfport responded that as a legislative leader, he has helped write budgets and cut spending. He said the treasurer doesn’t have the responsibility.
“I think I stopped counting after about 50 times he mentioned the word ‘conservative,’” Hewes said. “Well, I don’t have to out-conservative my opponent. He’s no more conservative than I am.”
Hewes is in the insurance and real estate businesses and has been in the Senate nearly 20 years. He said that gives him the experience needed to become lieutenant governor, the presiding officer of the 52-member chamber.
Hewes, 49, said he was serving in the Legislature in the 1990s while “Tate was still in school.”
Reeves said the state debt increased significantly the first 12 years Hewes was in the Senate, but the rate of growth has slowed down since January 2004, when Reeves became state treasurer and Republican Haley Barbour became governor.
Hewes said the rate of increase in the debt slowed down because Republicans took over the Senate majority.
Reeves, Barbour and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood serve on the state Bond Commission. Mississippi issues bonds to take on long-term debt for big projects such as renovations to state buildings or to offer incentives for economic development projects.
After legislators vote to authorize bonds, at least two of the three Bond Commission members must vote to issue the debt.
Hewes said Reeves has voted to approve bonds more than 400 times and is responsible for about $3.8 billion of state debt. Reeves said that’s “misleading” because Mississippi had $3.1 billion in debt when he took office.
“You haven’t seen a positive ad from my opponent about him because he’s too busy spending money attacking me and my record in Jackson,” Reeves said of Hewes. “It’s really not surprising. It’s what you would expect from someone who’s got 20 years in the Legislature and is fighting to keep his job.”
Hewes responded that his campaign ads that criticize Reeves’ work on the Bond Commission are fair.
“I think we need to point out inconsistencies when they occur,” Hewes said. “I think voters have a right to understand when they’ve been misled.”
Hewes also took a swipe at state-funded ads in which Reeves promotes Mississippi’s college savings plans: “He didn’t talk about the $2.3 million of advertising of their money, of other people’s money, that he had spent on self-promoting advertisements across the state.”
Reeves did not respond to that criticism.
Current Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, is running for governor this year. No Democrat is running for lieutenant governor.
The winner of the Aug. 2 Republican primary will face Reform Party candidate Tracella Lou O’Hara Hill, who’s running a low-budget campaign.
The lieutenant governor’s job is one of the most powerful in Mississippi politics. The lieutenant governor appoints committee chairmen and assigns bills to committees — actions that can determine which proposals live or die.
Hewes and Reeves said Saturday that if they’re elected, they will appoint conservative committee chairmen. Neither ruled out appointing Democrats to some jobs. Republicans currently hold a slim majority in the chamber, and it’s unclear how the partisan balance will shake out in the November election.