Parson, Galloway spar on COVID, policing, health care in debate

Gov.+Mike+Parson+enters+the+stage%2C+passing+State+Auditor+Nicole+Galloway+before+the+Missouri+gubernatorial+debate+at+the+Missouri+Theatre+in+Columbia+on+Friday%2C+Oct.+9%2C+2020+%28Robert+Cohen+for+the+St.+Louis+Post-Dispatch%29

Photo by Robert Cohen

Gov. Mike Parson enters the stage, passing State Auditor Nicole Galloway before the Missouri gubernatorial debate at the Missouri Theatre in Columbia on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 (Robert Cohen for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

In what will likely be the only in-person debate among the four candidates for Missouri governor, Gov. Mike Parson and state Auditor Nicole Galloway sparred over COVID-19, budget priorities and policing in a forum sponsored by the Missouri Press Association Oct. 9.

Parson, a Republican who took office after the resignation of Gov. Eric Greitens in May 2018, is facing voters for the first time as governor. Galloway, currently the only statewide elected Democrat, was elected auditor in 2018 after being appointed to the office in 2015. Libertarian candidate Rik Combs and Green Party candidate Jerome Bauer also joined the forum, which was held without an audience at the Missouri Theatre in Columbia.

The forum was originally slated to coincide with the Press Association’s annual convention, held virtually this year, but it was delayed after Parson tested positive for COVID-19. The debate eventually took place just after the governor’s two-week quarantine period expired.

Galloway said of Parson in her closing statement, “On our biggest challenges, Gov. Parson’s solutions are just too small. If he had answers, we would have seen them — he had his chance, he failed the test of leadership. He is in over his head.”

She accused the governor of failing to “act with urgency” to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including not implementing a statewide mask mandate and failing to shift his response when hospitalizations hit an all-time high in the days before the forum. She promised a mask mandate and a “complete reset” on the state’s strategy for fighting the virus that focuses on “science-backed, data-proven ways” to slow down cases “so we can get our lives back, we can open our schools again and we can repair our economy.”

Parson did not mention the pandemic in his opening or closing statements, in which he highlighted his roots from a “strong family with Christian values, moral values” and his time spent as a sheriff, member of the military and farmer: “Those life skills are what makes you a leader in the state of Missouri.”

The governor said that Galloway’s repeated jabs had the forum “starting to look like the bickering on the national level.” But he defended what he called his “balanced approach” to fighting the coronavirus through his “Show Me Strong Recovery Plan,” which has not included a statewide mask mandate. While he consulted with universities and experts in the state on how best to respond, he decided to leave decisions like stay-at-home orders and other mandates up to local governments.

“No one person should be in charge of making mandates for the state of Missouri, it’s a very diverse state whether you have the urban areas or whether you have the rural areas,” Parson said, adding, “People at home should have a say in the rules and regulations that are placed on them.”

He repeatedly noted that Missouri currently ranks 12th in the nation for regaining jobs after record job losses in the spring due to the pandemic.

“We are on the right track in this state, but we have to do a combination of fighting the virus, fighting the economy and getting our kids back in school,” Parson said.

Combs, of Jefferson City, said he stands for “limited government, smaller government, more efficient government, free enterprise always and to protect private property. What Missourians will have to figure out pretty soon is what type of government do they want:  Do they want a large government, do they want a limited government? And Missourians are going to have that choice on Nov. 3.”

He advocated for a hands-off approach to combating COVID-19, including “opening the state up fully and I think herd immunity would take control.”

Bauer encouraged a third-party vote, including to the Libertarians, to keep choice on the ballot and said that he and the Green Party stand for universal health care. He said he was nearly kicked off the Medicaid rolls by Parson: “Health care is a human right.” He said the governor should set an example by wearing a mask and proposed a “universal basic income in exchange for universal basic service,” including a New Deal-style infrastructure rebuilding that could put people to work.

Tax dollars

Galloway targeted one of Republicans’ traditional campaign planks by claiming, “I am the most fiscally conservative statewide officeholder — not only have I found waste and abuse, I’ve returned taxpayer money in the process. Gov. Parson cannot lead our state in a fiscally responsible way because he’s not a fiscal conservative,” alleging he asked the Legislature for a personal driver as lieutenant governor and that he takes airplane trips between Jefferson City and his farm in Bolivar.

The auditor said, “I am not proposing any increases in taxes for the agendas that I have laid out — as state auditor I have found and identified loopholes and giveaways that provide no value to our taxpayers whatsoever.”

Combs decried the state’s “draconian taxes” and said individual, corporate and personal property taxes should be lowered to attract more businesses and residents to the state.

“I won’t raise taxes in Missouri unless the people of this state say they want to,” Parson said, noting that he had to cut programs like K-12 and higher education this year to present a balanced budget after revenue collapsed in the pandemic.

Defunding the police

Parson repeatedly pointed to his credentials as a 22-year law enforcement officer and linked Galloway to supporters of “defunding the police,” or switching money away from policing to social work and mental health programs. He said that movement is supported by two other politicians she has endorsed, former presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Cori Bush, who defeated incumbent U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay to run for his seat in November.

But in return, Galloway accused Parson of cutting $1.8 million from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, a charge Parson denied.

“I don’t support defunding the police, he knows that — the only person on this stage who has defunded the police is Gov. Parson,” Galloway said, adding that law enforcement officers “need support, need resources. We should fund our police and fund support services.”

“You might not say it here in this forum with everybody watching, but it does matter,” Parson said. “I will never defund the police officers, and I will always stand up for the state of Missouri.”

On the cuts to the MSHP budget, Parson said, “I don’t know what she’s talking about, cutting the budget on that.”

In response to a question about social justice, Parson said that he has collaborated with organizations in the state’s urban areas more than any other governor, including Better Family Life in St. Louis.

“Black lives matter, all lives matter in this state, no matter who you are or where you come from,” Parson said, adding, “When you’re in the military like I was and you’re in a foxhole, it don’t matter what somebody’s skin is — don’t matter what your gender is, it’s about taking care of one another.”

Bauer said he would support reparations for past wrongs like slavery.

Combs said, “Missourians are Missourians no matter what their sex is, no matter what their race is or religion. I’m not into identity politics.”

Infrastructure

All four candidates agreed that something needs to be done to fix roads and bridges in the state, but they differed on how to get there.

“We’ve been working on that since Day 1 – infrastructure is a priority of my administration,” Parson said, noting a bonding plan that he signed last year to build 250 new bridges and $1 billion of construction. But in the future, “we definitely need a funding source at some point to address this issue.”

Combs said, “With a budget of $35 billion, you can’t tell me that we can’t find $100, 200, 300 million dollars — it’s there and we need to cut the fat and we need to pay for our roads and bridges.”

Bauer again suggested “universal basic income in exchange for universal basic service,” in which people could go to work building roads and bridges “in exchange for free college — well, there’s nothing free, you pay for it with your labor.”

Galloway said in her position as auditor she has found enough tax loopholes and giveaways to fund other programs, including the clause that discounts sales taxes to businesses who pay on time, which she termed a loophole that cost the state $121 million last year.

Medicaid expansion

Galloway repeatedly said she agreed with voters to expand Medicaid expansion and criticizing Parson for his approach to Medicaid and health care, including joining a lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act commonly known as Obamacare and claiming that he knocked 100,000 children off the rolls.

Parson denied that any children were kicked out of Medicaid, the state-run health care system for the poor (“We didn’t kick one child off the Medicaid rolls”) and said that he conducted a verification process that is required by law every year but hadn’t been done in a decade. Parson said his review found Medicaid fraud, including payment for a baby born in Florida to a woman who lived in Florida and someone who made $650,000 with six houses. But Bauer, who is on the program because he is blind, said he was one of the ones nearly kicked off the state-run health care program.

Voters decided in August to add an amendment to the Missouri Constitution enshrining Medicaid expansion, in which the federal government is currently agreeing to fund 90 percent of Medicaid costs.

“It’s particularly cruel that Gov. Parson opposed Medicaid expansion in the midst of this pandemic,” Galloway said. She said she would implement the law in a “fiscally responsible way” that “in the long run saves our state millions of dollars.”

Parson has been outspoken against the decision but said he will implement it because the voters placed it in the Constitution.

“The people of the state voted for this, we’re going to have to implement it,” he said. “But it’s not going to be free. Any time there’s an expansion in state government, it is never free, trust me. … We’re just going to have to do that and balance the budget at the same time.”

“We can do much better than Medicaid expansion,” Bauer said. “We really need Medicare for All, we need a single-payer health system.”

Combs warned that if the much-indebted federal government decides to quit paying, Missouri will be footing the entire bill.