Mississippi should set minimum wage higher than federal level, says Democrat running for governor

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Democrat who's trying to unseat Mississippi's Republican governor said Tuesday that the state should set a minimum wage higher than the federal standard of $7.25 an hour.

Brandon Presley did not propose a specific number for a new wage in a state that has long been one of the poorest in the U.S., but he said he would work with leaders in the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

“I think there could be some commonsense reform," Presley, who's currently a state utility regulator, said two weeks before he faces Gov. Tate Reeves in the Nov. 7 general election.

Speaking during a forum at Tougaloo College, Presley said people cannot earn a living on $7.25 an hour. He talked about growing up in a home where his mother struggled to pay bills as a garment factory worker after his father was killed.

“I understand what living paycheck-to-paycheck means. I've done it,” Presley said.

A campaign spokesperson for Reeves did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday about whether Mississippi should set a minimum wage higher than $7.25.

Reeves presided over the state Senate during his eight years as lieutenant governor before he won the governor's race in 2019. No legislation to set a Mississippi minimum wage higher than $7.25 advanced during those 12 years.

Reeves has been reluctant to put extra regulations on private businesses. Speaking at a breakfast Monday in Columbus, Reeves said he's proud that Mississippi has attracted new industries, and he said Presley is beholden to wealthy out-of-state campaign donors who want to change Mississippi's conservative culture — something Presley denies.

“All the successes that we’ve had in education, in the economy, the thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to do it without compromising on our values,” Reeves said.

Thirty states and the District of Columbia have set minimum wages that are higher than the federal requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The nonpartisan organization says Mississippi is one of five states that have not set their own minimum wage. Two states have a minimum wage that's lower than the federal standard. In all seven of those states, the $7.25 federal minimum applies.

Presley has also said he wants to expand Medicaid to more than 200,000 Mississippi residents who work in low-wage jobs that don't provide private health insurance. Expansion is an option under the health overhaul law signed in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama, and Mississippi is one of 10 states that have not taken advantage of that.

Reeves refers to Medicaid expansion as “welfare” and has said he does not want to add people to the program. Presley says that by not expanding Medicaid, Mississippi has missed out on $1 billion a year in federal money that could help keep rural hospitals open.