The JFP Interview With Alan Nunnelee

Photo by Thomas Wells

Republican Mississippi Sen. Alan Nunnelee is looking to follow after Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker—again. In 1994, Nunnelee gained Wicker's state Senate seat after Wicker won election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

But then in 2008, Gov. Haley Barbour tapped Wicker to replace outgoing Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, and a rough and tumble race to find a new U.S. representative for Mississippi's First Congressional District began. Democrat Travis Childers won multiple elections to claim the seat.

Now Nunnelee—fresh from a successful win in the Republican primary—says it's time for the Democrat to surrender what he claims is a very conservative district.

Nunnelee was born in Tupelo in 1958, but spent some time in Clinton, where he graduated from Clinton High School in 1976. Nunnelee graduated from Mississippi State University in 1980. Since his 1994 election to the state Senate, the senator has been knee-deep in political activities, particularly when it comes to health care and business. The senator is vice chairman of the Health Committee of the National Conference of State Legislators, and a member of the Health and Human Services Task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded group that helps legislators write pro-business laws.

The Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC) rates Nunnelee as a Business Champion for his "support of free enterprise," according to the senator's website. As Mississippi's Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, he has supported many successful pro-big-business efforts, including the state Legislature's cap on medical damages in 2002 and 2004.

First of all, congratulations: You made it through the primaries.
The thing I'm really proud of is we made it through the primaries, and we did not have a repeat of 2008, where it was a death match—and you had one candidate in 2008 that was left mortally wounded and another candidate that was left so wounded that they couldn't wage an impressive battle in November. We haven't repeated that. I'm very proud of that.

What was the issue with the election that brought Childers to power? Did he win because of the war between the eastern folks in Tupelo and the western voters in Desoto?
It was more than just a regional battle. I think a lot of outside observers tried to paint it as East versus West, but I think it was more about the way the campaign was waged in 2008 that led to the result.

You put no faith in the argument that it was the old power in Tupelo battling against the Memphis suburbanites moving in over in Desoto County?
No. Regionalism wasn't so much a factor.

So you're confident the GOP can get it together and reclaim the seat this time? Do you think a fair number of conservatives will be bopping over to Childers' camp at the election? Politically, he's redder than rhubarb.
I see a united spirit among conservatives in north Mississippi that they want to elect a congressman that will allow that congressman to change the direction of what's happening in Washington.

What's the advantage to putting another Republican on MS-01? With 255 Democrats and 177 Republicans in the House, it's kind of unlikely that Republicans will reclaim the House majority this time around, leaving you as a fledgling member of a minority party. What can you accomplish for the district under those circumstances?
The first day on the job I'm going to vote to fire (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi. That, by itself, will not change the direction of America, but it is a good first day's work. I don't think her leadership is reflective of the direction that people of Mississippi want to see their country go.

But if the Democrats retain the majority in the House, there's a good chance Pelosi will remain in her seat and become embittered to MS-01 for your vote, don't you think?
I can't deal with hypotheticals. I'm just going to deal with what I see is going to make (a difference).

Childers might say voters could get pretty much the same conservative ideas you offer, coupled with a decent committee assignment from a majority party member if they return him to the seat. Does he have a point?
I think that's a question the voters will have to decide. Do they want to embrace a candidate who is willing to trade a committee assignment to support Nancy Pelosi?

On your website you say that you "have watched with growing dismay as the Obama-Pelosi regime has unleashed a liberal agenda so radical even Bill Clinton would not have attempted it." You say cap and trade is an example. What's wrong with cap and trade?
I don't understand your question.

I noticed your opposition to cap and trade. What went wrong with it? What makes the program so unsuccessful?
The president himself said that, out of necessity, electric rates would skyrocket. I'm not in favor, in a downturn economy or anytime, of any policy that would guarantee that electric rates would skyrocket. Cap and trade is a political agenda in search of a science, and all that really is, is a thinly veiled tax sold as environmental policy.

Cap and trade, I thought, was something implemented under the first Bush administration as a way to address the problem of acid rain from coal-burning power plants in the Eastern United States. It imposed a limit on emissions from the plants, and utilities were allowed to buy and sell permits to comply. Where did it go wrong when being applied to carbon emissions?
I think it's about raising taxes.

What do you propose as an alternative to reducing carbon emissions?
I think right now the single-most important issue facing people in Mississippi for the next decade, possible for the next quarter century, is economy followed by jobs. That's what's on peoples' mind.

All right, how will you bring jobs?
Let me address what will not work, and then I can talk about something that will work. Back in 2009, the administration said that if we did not pass this $790 billion stimulus package then unemployment rates could go up as high as 8 percent. Well, we borrowed $790 billion that our great grandchildren will have to re-pay. And now the unemployment rates are over 12 percent. We've got some counties with unemployment over 20 percent. So now, we've got a far worse economic situation, propped up by borrowed government money, and we've got the debt on top of the worst economic situation.

A couple of examples that actually do work: Coming up in a few weeks, we're going to have a second sales tax holiday in the state. Last year, we had the first sales tax holiday where any article of clothing under $100 was exempt from sales tax. In the weeks leading up to that, I remember I asked my wife, "If you got a flyer from the store saying they were having a 7 percent off sale, what would you do?" She said: "A 7 percent off sale is nothing. I wouldn't even read the flyer. I'd put it in the trash." But I rode around during the two days of that sales tax holiday and what I saw was more economic activity than what occurs in the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving at the end of the year. If you let men and women keep more of their own money, we don't have to have a $700 billion package. We'll make our own stimulus. What happened on those two days is stores went out and bought more inventory, which meant manufacturers had to make more of whatever it was they were selling, the retail stores had more personnel that worked overtime, which put more money into the economy. For those two days, we saw an economic stimulus.

Another and more long-term example of what works: Following Katrina, there was the Gulf Opportunity Zone (Act) passed, which allowed for accelerated depreciation and allowed for various tax credits. The result of that you see in the Golden Triangle Industrial Park (between the cities of Columbus, Starkville and West Point), which began to flourish. You can draw a line in the sand. The next county north, Clay County, did not have those GO Zone tax credits, and, right now, Clay County is experiencing 20 percent unemployment. This shows me that if you let men and women and business markets keep more money, we'll make our own stimulus.

You've worked on the Appropriations Committee. Can you say the tax holiday translated into revenue for the state? Legislators saw the benefit of that, right?
Yes. I think we took in more in tax revenue than we would have had we not had the exemption.

What of the stimulus bill? The Desoto Times Tribune has you saying you would work to repeal aspects of the federal stimulus bill. What aspects of it would you repeal?
I don't know the article that said I'd repeal the stimulus bill. I don't like it, but most of the money has already been spent, so I don't think you could repeal anything that would have any effect. I think they've quoted me saying I would vote to repeal the health-care bill.

They got you saying that, too, but I take it you would not have voted for the stimulus plan?
No, because all it did was artificially prop up the economy. It put money in government programs, and it borrowed $790 billion from our grandchildren.

Yeah, but it also put $700 million in the state budget, didn't it? Didn't we get $300 million for education and $400 million for Medicaid? Would we have gotten that money had you been in a position to prevent the stimulus from happening?
No, it would have not come to us, and the state would have had to have made the difficult decision that we're going to have to make in 2012 without it.

That same story in the Desoto Times Tribune did have you saying of "Obamacare": "Our government made a serious mistake. We need to repeal the law, defund it and get it off the books." OK, what parts of it would you repeal—the parts that close the Medicaid "donut hole" or the bits that repeal the consumer protections regarding insurance?
We need to scrap the whole health-care plan and start completely over.

Yeah, but if you repeal it completely, you have to start again from scratch, don't you? This includes the donut hole and the insurance consumer protections.
I think we need to repeal the whole thing and start all over.

Do you personally favor closing the donut hole?
Yes, I think we need to address some specific issues with Medicare, but I just don't like the way that bill was packaged.

Is it a good idea to roll back an insurance company's ability to refuse a policy based on a customer's pre-existing conditions?
Let me describe what I would like to see in health-care reform. Our health-care financing system is perfectly designed for the post-World War II economy where one individual goes to work for one company, works for that company their entire life and retires. That's not the economy of the 21st century. In today's economy, men and women are moving from job to job. Very often they'll go through long periods of their career and then decide to go back to school. In addition, we have an unprecedented number of self-employed individuals and small businesses, and our health-care financing model is not designed to fit our type of economy.

First of all, in the middle of World War II, there was a decision made by the IRS that said that the tax advantage of paying for health insurance goes to the company, and not to the individual, and I think that we ought to change the tax law immediately, and individuals paying their health-care premiums ought to get the exact same tax advantage that corporations get.

Secondly, in small businesses, you don't have the buying power that large corporations have. I think that small businesses ought to be able to come together either in trade associations or other buying groups that will give them the buying power that large corporations have.

Similar to an exchange, but not government regulated, right?
Not government led.

No. 3: There are people in north Mississippi today working for a company based out of Ohio, and that's where they get their insurance. It comes out of Ohio. As long as they are working for that corporation, they can have that policy. But when they leave that company, they can't buy that policy based out of Ohio. I think we ought to remove the barriers that allow purchases across state lines.

No. 4: We need to make sure that no insurance company can cancel a person's policy for using their policy. That's what you buy the insurance for, and if you have a claim, you should not be able to be canceled.

No. 5: The issue of pre-existing conditions: If a person has insurance and chooses to move from one insurance plan to the next, they ought not to be excluded for pre-existing conditions. We can make exceptions for children just coming into the system, but if a person goes along and they're 50 years old, and they've never had insurance, and all of the sudden they have chest pains, and the doctor says they'll have to have bypass surgery, and they want to buy insurance right then, that is not part of the pre-existing exclusion. As long as a person has insurance and is moving from one plan to another, we should find ways to exclude pre-existing conditions. If a person doesn't step up and take responsibility for their health-care, then we shouldn't force them.

Finally, we've seen the evidence of comprehensive tort reform and the effect it has had on malpractice insurance, and I think there are some things we can do on the federal level to deal with lawsuit abuse.

And then finally, we ought to make the entire process of medical billing much more transparent—a person goes to a hospital and they get a bill that is so complicated they don't understand it. I think we need to make it much more transparent because there is a link between medical costs and insurance costs.

Let me ask something from you on tort reform. We've had tort reform in Mississippi since 2001, right? And we got the cap on medical damages in 2003, right?
I think it was 2002, and 2004 was the second.

You'd think I'd know this by now. But look, nobody I've spoken to claims their doctor bills have gotten any cheaper since those two rounds of tort reform. What's going on here? Where's the disconnect? And why do you think tort reform will make a difference on our medical bills on a national level if I can't feel the difference here in pro-tort-reform Mississippi?
What has made a significant difference is the availability of medical care, and what you cannot measure is what would your medical bills have been had we not passed tort reform. What we know for a fact is that prior to tort reform in Mississippi, there were so many doctors who could not get medical-malpractice insurance that we had to form a state-owned malpractice, higher-risk pool for doctors that couldn't buy medical-malpractice insurance otherwise. When we passed tort reform, the private market came in, and a few years ago the state sold that medical-malpractice pool because there was no longer a need for it.

But is there another legal step we can take to make sure those insurance savings transfer down to the patient and the bill payer?
I think they are translating down to the patient and the bill payer. Again, you're not measuring it against what their bills would have been had we not passed tort reform.

Yeah, yeah, but that's kind of like saying how bad the economy and the unemployment rate would have been had we not passed the stimulus bill, right?
(Pause) Well, I just think we did the right thing in passing tort reform.

But is there a need for government to step in and conceive some legal means to make sure that those malpractice savings get passed down to the patient and get documented?
I would be opposed to government regulation of the cost of health care.

What's your overall take on Social Security? Good thing or bad thing? Has it gone too far since the 1960s, or is it OK in its current form?
The problem with Social Security is that Congress has continued to borrow out of the Social Security Trust Fund. If you look at the balance sheet it shows a lot of money in the trust fund, but all those assets are used by the federal government. Social Security offers a very complex problem. I define what I refer to as "out-of-bounds" markers. We have made a commitment to men and women that are drawing benefits and other men and women that are very close to beginning to draw benefits in the next 10 or 15 years. They have made decisions throughout their life based upon the promise that the U.S government made to them that Social Security will be there, and we have a moral commitment, a moral obligation, to honor the commitment we made to those people who are drawing benefits. The first thing we need are out-of-bounds markers that say we don't do anything that does not honor the commitment we've made.

If we stick our head in the sand and do nothing, or if we continue partisan bickering, every day the whole system gets one day closer to complete failure. And so there comes a day when you'll have to set aside the partisan bickering and set aside the ostrich behavior and say, "OK. We've got to put some realistic options on the table."

One option put on the table in the Republican Primary (that I refused to adopt) is complete privatization. There's a problem with complete privatization. I can understand that a 25-year-old given the option would not want to pay into Social Security, but if you take that 25-year-old's contribution out of the revenue stream it violates the first out-of-bounds marker that I favor. Those are the contributions that are (currently) paying the benefits for the 75-year-old. At this point, I don't have the silver bullet, but I know we must honor the commitment we have made, and we cannot continue to make problems.

Would you have voted, like Childers did in February 2009, to reauthorize and expand SCHIP to provide health-care coverage to 11 million children nationwide? From what I recall, almost everybody voting against it in the House was Republican. Would you have put yourself among those ranks?
The SCHIP program by itself is a good program. However, the 2009 bill expanded SCHIP in certain areas. For instance, I think the law made SCHIP available to somebody who is 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, and that excludes housing and transportation costs. So a family of four, making a lot more than $100,000* a year in New York could be eligible for SCHIP. I would not be in favor of that at all.

*Editor's note: 400% of the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four is $88,200 for all 48 contiguous states.

Would you have favored the vote had SCHIP been a more uniform increase across state lines?
The SCHIP program was a bipartisan program put forth by Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton, and it resulted in health-care coverage for children across Mississippi, and I think the program was a good idea, but I don't like that expansion.

I get that, but the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute say that since 1996, "health insurance costs have risen so much that (even) for families at 300 percent of the federal poverty level, Employer Sponsored Insurance is less affordable for families at 300 percent of the FPL today than it was for families at 200 percent of the FPL when SCHIP was passed.
Mmm, hmm ...

(Silence) OK, moving on. Let's talk about big government spending. Your campaign site says we "need to put an end to wasteful earmarks." I'm with you there. But Citizens Against Government Waste, an anti-pork watchdog group, estimated that pork projects cost $29 billion in 2006. The Office of Management and Budget shows federal expenditures of $2.66 trillion that year, so pork would represent maybe just a little over 1 percent of total spending. Something else has got to go. What programs would you cut?
To me, the approach with earmarks is we ought to be transparent in what we do. If the American people can look at a project and say, "that's a project that makes sense," then that's an earmark that I don't have a problem with. I say put a project on the Internet 72 hours before you vote on them. That way the people can see what's going on.

We've had a lot of infrastructure in Mississippi built with earmarks. Jobs are located where the highways have been built, and a lot of those highways have been built with federal money. But if you put the projects on the Internet 72 hours ahead of time, I think the people of north Mississippi would look at Interstate 60 or Interstate 22 and say ‘that's a good project.' On the other hand, if there was a bridge to nowhere, Alaska, or an airport with no airplanes in Pennsylvania, people would look at it and say, "No. There's a problem."

I'm rarely able to get a candidate to put his or her finger down on any particular program that they would cut in the name of reducing the deficit. What needs to be reined in besides earmarks—which only account for about 1 percent of the budget?
At this point, I don't know if I can give you a specific answer. I think that at the state level, with my strong leadership, I've been able to make the difficult decisions that help us live within our means, and I think I can do that on the federal level.

Are you willing to do away with sacred cows in the federal budget? Obama's Dec. 19, 2009, military budget plan was $663 billion—higher, when adjusted for inflation, even than during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Is it time to look seriously at our defense budget for savings?
I think that the defense of our nation is the No. 1 priority in the federal government. We don't need to have wasteful military spending. We don't need $600 toilet seats and $1,000 hammers, but what we need to have as the very highest priority is the defense of our nation.

Previous Comments

ID
158447
Comment

Nunnelee hasn't given district attorneys or county judges a raise in ten years. Not even for cost of living. Teachers have inked up the ranks through the dreaded tactics of "unions." Policemen, firemen, all social services have had little to no voice in the MS Senate under this man's charge. I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut he doesn't know what the average homestead tax bill in Lee county is, much less MS-01. He and the other senators have slid the costs of social services off the state balance sheet for years in the name of "no new taxes." I hope we have a serious debate about leadership in the fall, but it sounds like all we'll get from the right is Pelosi, Pork and Obamacare.

Author
write2richie
Date
2010-06-30T21:31:02-06:00
ID
158459
Comment

We're hearing that some Republicans are surprised at the history of cap-and-trade. Here's an article giving some more background.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-07-01T10:50:18-06:00
ID
158464
Comment

"No. 5: The issue of pre-existing conditions: If a person has insurance and chooses to move from one insurance plan to the next, they ought not to be excluded for pre-existing conditions. We can make exceptions for children just coming into the system, but if a person goes along and they’re 50 years old, and they’ve never had insurance, and all of the sudden they have chest pains, and the doctor says they’ll have to have bypass surgery, and they want to buy insurance right then, that is not part of the pre-existing exclusion." Wtf? Seriously? So they are just SOL? What if they have never been able to buy health insurance? What if they make $20,000 a year, have never been to afford to save money, and cant afford hundreds of thousands of dollars of care (which I assume would be the case for most of Mr. Nunnelee's hypothetical 50 year-old Mississippi resident heart failure victims)? They just die a slow painful death? Given that Mississippi has been the poorest state for the past 100 years and has the highest rate of obesity, wouldn't increased insurance money flowing into the state only lead to increased collective prosperity? I assume he's worried about black men (which have the highest rate of heart disease and make up 35% of the state's male population) actually receiving health care, prolonging their life, and voting for Obama and future Obamas again. Racist.

Author
DrumminD21311
Date
2010-07-01T13:12:33-06:00
ID
158470
Comment

Nice to see it wasn't a puff piece. Other media in the area could learn from you - CL, MPB I'm looking at you. As to Nunnalee, I think Shakespeare said it best, "it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." Because he brings some emotional talking points to the table, but precious little in hard facts and concrete ideas.

Author
Pilgrim
Date
2010-07-01T15:12:25-06:00
ID
158471
Comment

#5. "If a person has insurance and chooses to move from one insurance plan to the next, they ought not to be excluded for pre-existing conditions." That of course is a big part of the bill. And Nunnelee makes a pretty strong case for the individual mandate until i guess he realizes what he is saying: "but if a person goes along and they’re 50 years old, and they’ve never had insurance, and all of the sudden they have chest pains, and the doctor says they’ll have to have bypass surgery, and they want to buy insurance right then, that is not part of the pre-existing exclusion. If a person doesn’t step up and take responsibility for their health-care, then we shouldn’t force them." "we shouldn't force them"??? What exactly should we do? A 50 year old with a heart condition is going to have a tough time finding or affording insurance. It sounds like he is saying we just end rescissions and if you don't have insurance once your sick your sol for the rest of your life. But somebody is going to pay for that uncompensated care

Author
dortch
Date
2010-07-01T15:14:12-06:00
ID
158512
Comment

While this was an interesting read, I have to say I'm disappointed that Adam didn't touch any on Nunnelee's abysmal civil rights history, especially the state's ban on same-sex marriage which he authored with the help of the American Family Association's lawyers. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see his campaign coffers full of money from the American Family Association and its employees.

Author
LambdaRisen
Date
2010-07-03T13:56:49-06:00
ID
158532
Comment

so he's ready to cut waste...he just isn't sure what it is? did i read that right?

Author
jp!
Date
2010-07-07T14:14:25-06:00

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