Opinion

Pressure is on Mississippi lawmakers to pass a teacher pay raise

Arlington Elementary School teacher Nadis Chambers helps her second grade students in April 2017 in Pascagoula.
Arlington Elementary School teacher Nadis Chambers helps her second grade students in April 2017 in Pascagoula. Sun Herald file

Mississippi House members upped the ante last week on their Senate colleagues when they overwhelmingly voted to provide public school teachers a sizable $4,000 pay raise over two years.

Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville offered the amendment to increase the pay raise from $1,000 over two years to $4,000 over the objections of the House leaders.

But now, if the size of the raise is reduced in the final budget agreement in the coming weeks, House members can go home to campaign for re-election and tell teachers they voted for the larger salary increase but the Senate leaders would not agree to it.

It is possible, perhaps probable, that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and his Senate leadership also will strive now to provide a pay raise larger than the $1,000 increase over two years that they first proposed.

After all, there is a precedence of one chamber being afraid of being upstaged by the other in terms of teacher pay raises.

It could be argued that fear of the other chamber led to the approval of the largest pay raise in the state’s history in the 2000 legislative session.

Then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove campaigned the preceding year on passing a multi-year pay increase to move teacher salaries to the Southeastern average. But in the 2000 session, both the House and Senate leaders were in unison that the state could not afford to tackle the costly teacher pay raise that year.

The proposal looked dead for the session when it could be argued then-House Ways and Means Chair Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, revived the pay raise proposal by quoting comic strip character “Snuffy Smith.” Sitting at his desk at the end of the day, he was asked by a reporter what he thought about doing the pay raise that year, he replied, “Time’s a wastin’” for the raise. He attributed the quote to Smith, an Appalachian hillbilly cartoon character.

Orientation helps teachers with software, techniques and policies.

McCoy support for doing a pay raise that year was reported over the weekend. Apparently, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and her leadership team, believed the McCoy comment signaled that the House leaders were about to endorse a raise, leaving the Senate as the lone holdout. Tuck and her leadership team decided they needed to announce their support for the salary hike.

On a Monday, Tuck held a news conference to unveil a multi-year plan to move teacher pay to the Southeastern average. Then-House Speaker Tim Ford of Baldwyn was traveling back from Montgomery and was completely blindsided by Tuck’s announcement.

But after the McCoy’s comments and the Tuck news conference, the pay raise sailed through the legislative process. The five year, nearly $340 million package provided a significant boost to teachers’ pay checks but failed to get them to the elusive Southeastern average since during that phase-in other states also were providing salary increases.

This session everyone seems to be on board with a teacher pay raise. The question is just how large.

The end result might not be a $4,000 pay raise. But it is likely that the result of the Holland amendment will be a raise larger than $1,000 originally proposed by House and Senate leaders.

The difficulty is that many legislators, including Speaker Philip Gunn, have been adamant in stressing that if teachers receive a pay raise then so should state employees.

House and Senate leaders have either been lucky or cunning in being in position during an election year to have a modest amount of additional revenue for pay raises. They are in this place after dealing with sluggish revenue collections and reductions in state budgets and programs for much of the four-year-term.

The question is how far will those extra funds go in providing a pay raise for both teachers and state employees.

Regardless, the pressure to provide a sizable pay raise for teachers is now on the Senate and its leaders thanks to the action of the House last week.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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