By Emily Wagster Pettus
JACKSON – Republican Phil Bryant is starting his third year as Mississippi governor, and he says he wants to make public safety the top focus of the 2014 legislative session, which begins at noon Tuesday.
He wants to train more state troopers and create “strike force” groups to help local law enforcement officers in areas where mayors or county supervisors say there are problems with gangs, drugs or violent crime.
During an interview with The Associated Press, Bryant also said he remains firmly opposed to Medicaid expansion, which is an option under the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law. He said he wants to expand community health centers as a way to provide primary care and deter people from going to emergency rooms for routine medical services.
Bryant also said he wants to require drug testing for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a government program that provides money to low-income families with children up to age 18. Similar proposals have gained little traction in recent years.
Utah started a drug-testing program for welfare recipients in 2012. A state agency found that the state spent $30,000 the first year and found 12 people who tested positive for drug use. Bryant said he believes Mississippi would run a program for a similar amount of money.
The Mississippi Department of Human Services annual report says that for the 2013 budget year, which ended June 30, the average monthly payment to a family receiving TANF was $140, while the average payment to an individual was $67. The report said that in June, 9,563 families received TANF payments.
Here are excerpts from the interview, which took place in the governor’s Capitol office:
AP: Your plan to expand community health centers could help provide more primary care coverage, but it wouldn’t cover hospitalization. Expanding Medicaid could help cover hospital expenses for some people who are currently uninsured.
Bryant: “For us to enter into an expansion program would be a fool’s errand. I mean, here we would be saying to 300,000 Mississippians, ‘We’re going to provide Medicaid coverage to you,’ and then the federal government through Congress or through the Senate, would do away with or alter the Affordable Care Act, and then we have no way to pay that. We have no way to continue the coverage.”
AP: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who’s also a Republican, used to oppose Medicaid expansion but ended up pushing it through the Legislature there by saying that rejecting expansion would cause financial harm to hospitals and others who give uncompensated care. Have you thought about changing your mind here?
Bryant: “I don’t question Jan Brewer’s logic. She can do what she wants to do in Arizona. But I don’t believe you ever turn that back. I think she is going to bear the burden of those costs if that does occur. I wish her well with that. We just disagree on that.”
AP: You mentioned drug testing for TANF recipients. Is there some reason to believe people on the program are disproportionately troubled by drug problems, compared with the rest of the population?
Bryant: “I don’t have evidence to indicate that that population would be more likely. What I do have is a great concern that single mothers are not abusing drugs or other substances and try to maintain a family.”
AP: If the public policy concern is to make sure children are being raised in homes where people aren’t addicted to drugs, why not test all parents?
Bryant: “I’m not responsible for an individual or his actions unless he violates the law and then we will certainly put into effect the responsibility that we have to enforce the law for substance abuse. But when someone is taking tax dollars I think we have the right to determine whether or not that individual is abusing a substance and then how we go about treating them.”
AP: Why not test corporate leaders whose companies get state tax money? Or why not test public employees, like yourself?
Bryant: “If I was receiving any federal or state benefits to help raise my family, I’d be glad to take a drug test. I think that would be something that would be acceptable to me if I was receiving tax benefits. I work hard for my money. The federal government or the state government has a right, I think, to merely ask people who are receiving benefits through TANF to submit to a drug test so that we can identify if you’re abusing a substance and then how we go about treating you for that.”
AP: TANF has a work requirement. Would you concede that some TANF recipients are, in fact, working hard?
Bryant: “Oh, absolutely, and we’re trying to encourage more of that…. I don’t think that they can do a very good job of working at that job or do a very good job at that job if they’re abusing an illegal substance.”
AP: You issued an executive order saying Mississippi, not the federal government, would set curriculum and testing standards. Depending on political beliefs, some people could think you’re really criticizing Common Core; or, they could think you’re quietly defending Common Core and reassuring the business community that you’re just trying to make some Tea Party people happy.
Bryant: “I was someone surprised by the second reaction to that. I think there are those that would think, ‘Well, this is a way of pacifying someone.’ That came from my continued belief, that executive order, my continued belief that the Obama administration would like to centralize control over health care, public safety, education, the economy. And so everything I can do to make sure we defend our educational system from centralized federal government, I want to do. It’s no more complicated than that. I don’t have to pacify anyone in the conservative movement in Mississippi. I think my credentials there are pretty firm.”