NESHOBA COUNTY, Miss. (WLBT) - With a chuckle and earnest grin, Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Bill Waller Jr. makes his way from house to house at this year’s Neshoba County Fair, eager to tell Mississippians who he is and what he plans to do if elected.
Even though Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves has a double-digit lead over Waller in the latest poll numbers -- 31 percent to Reeves’ 41 percent -- Waller believes his experience, attitude and ideas are what set him apart from the rest: a GOP alternative.
“Everyone’s been able to watch me and see my work and over the last 21 years, I think there’s a public confidence in that, that I’m a known commodity, that I’m a conservative, that I’m pragmatic. I don’t stick my head in the sand when there’s a problem," Waller said.
He’s also no stranger to the state’s highest office.
Waller’s father served as governor in the 1970s.
“I was 19 when my father was elected, and he served from 1972 to 1976, and that was really a groundswell, a time of innovation and progress for the state," Waller said.
Waller said his father’s efforts to push for professional schools in the Magnolia State -- for architecture and veterinary medicine, for example -- also helped shape one of the issues he’s specifically passionate about with voters: education.
“We have a curriculum totally focused on college and two-thirds of our students coming out of high school aren’t interested in college, don’t want to go to college, and I think we’ve got a disconnect there," Waller said. "I want to look at workforce development in high school.”
He also wants to do far more than the $1,000 teacher pay raise passed during an election year, a raise critics said was more of an insult than a pay increase.
“We’ve got to have a serious, continued look at teacher pay until we reach the southeastern average, and I’m going to commission a blue ribbon panel to look at the education issues," Waller said.
Waller believes competitive pay could also help hospitals attract and retain quality employees, too, especially in rural areas.
That’s easier said than done.
In the last decade, five rural hospitals have closed in the Magnolia State.
“We’ve got 31 rural hospitals that are on the danger list for closing. No business is going to locate in the community. Nobody’s going to move there. Nobody wants to live there. I’m a right to life conservative and I think that access to health care is a right to life issue," Waller said.
His solution draws a line in the sand between him and his biggest Republican rival, Tate Reeves: expanding Medicaid.
“I would like to follow what [Vice President] Mike Pence did in Indiana and I think the money is there. We pay the taxes forward. We’ve got, I think, a broken system," Waller said. "We need to have it help our 115 hospitals and over 60,000 employees. It would be a billion dollars to the state and it wouldn’t cost any Mississippi tax money.”
Waller’s idea mirrors reports of then-Gov. Mike Pence’s Indiana expansion, dubbed the Healthy Indiana Plan.
The Indiana plan basically requires each member to contribute monthly amounts toward a premium -- between $1 and $20, depending on income.
“It teaches people that skin in the game is important, that you pay a policy premium, you have a deductible, you’ve got a copay. You go to work. I think that’s good. I think we need to create a pathway to work, not a wall to go into work," Waller said.
Of course, that commute to work can only be possible with a reliable transportation system.
That’s the third issue in Waller’s platform, specifically targeting the state’s roads and bridges.
He said that the state has arrived at a point where it can only really afford to maintain what roads already exist because lawmakers haven’t seriously addressed highway construction since 1987.
“It’s just like a leak in your house. If you don’t fix the leak, you’ll have to change the whole roof. A little preventive maintenance goes a long way. We’ve got to be very forward-looking and progressive like our forefathers did in 87," Waller said. "We need another big program, and thank goodness that they did that because we probably wouldn’t have Nissan or Toyota today.”
Waller didn’t specify a funding mechanism for this, but said in last month’s debate that he’s open to a small increase in the state’s gas tax.
Younger voters may remember Waller because of his 21 years with the Mississippi Supreme Court, ten of those as chief justice.
“You’re not a dictator. It’s a collaborative position. You can lead, but it’s better if you get other people to join with you," Waller said, talking about how he approached the office.
That history on the bench is part of the reason Waller has decided not to do what his opponents have done: attack those on the other side of the aisle.
“I agree that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are a lost cause but my commenting on it’s not going to change anything. Our business is here in Mississippi," Waller said. "I think the people are looking for leadership here in Mississippi and to address problems in Mississippi. There are national issues we need to step into. Criticizing Democratic leaders, I don’t think advances anything.”