Speaker: Lawmakers eye $1,000 raise for Mississippi teachers


House Speaker Philip Gunn said Monday that Mississippi public school teachers are likely to get a one-time raise of $1,000 in the coming year.

Gunn made the statement after legislative leaders met Monday to increase their revenue outlook for the current budget year, as well as the 2020 year beginning July 1.

The debate over how much of a raise to give teachers has been a centerpiece of this election-year legislative session. Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had both proposed a $500 raise this year followed by a $500 raise next year. House Democrats prompted that body to demand a pair of $2,000 raises. Now Gunn says lawmakers will do $1,000 in the coming year and not promise anything for the 2021 budget, which will be written by lawmakers chosen in this November’s elections.

“We feel pretty good if we are able to get a thousand this year,” Gunn said.

Reeves declined to be specific, saying only that he expected pay increases for teachers and state employees.

“I believe we will give a significant increase in teacher pay to reward their fantastic work over the last many years, and I’m hopeful it can be as large a number as we can possibly afford,” Reeves said.

Teacher advocates said they would be disappointed with only $1,000.

“That means the House caved,” said Kelly Riley, executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators, a teachers’ association. “That is not a strong sign of commitment for our public school teachers and I anticipate our educators will hold our lawmakers accountable this coming election,” Riley said.

The high-ranking Joint Legislative Budget Committee voted on Monday to accept an estimate projecting at least $202 million more in state revenue to spend in the upcoming year, compared to the budget with which the state started the current year.

Overall, Mississippi is likely to spend more than $21 billion in the coming year. Of that, more than $6 billion is state revenue to which lawmakers pay closest attention.

A one-time teacher pay raise of $1,000 is projected to cost more than $50 million. Also a cornerstone of the budget is $61 million more to begin paying down an accumulated shortfall in state pension funds managed by the Public Employees Retirement System. Lawmakers also plan to cover the increased cost of health insurance.

Gunn and Reeves said lawmakers are likely to allot money for small raises for some state, community college and university employees, mainly aimed at employees who have received no increases in the past two or three years. Total funding for all those raises could equal less than $15 million.

House officials said the Department of Child Protective Services is likely to get increased funding to cover costs associated with an ongoing lawsuit over the state’s foster care system. Gunn also said lawmakers are likely to contribute money to the Department of Public Safety to reduce a backlog in commercial driver license exams. He didn’t say anything about increased funding for regular driver’s license exams, where lawmaker and citizens have complained about waiting times, or to spend money to reduce the state’s backlog of autopsies and forensic evidence testing.

The state was $129 million ahead of its current-year estimates through February, but the estimate adopted Monday only projects $125 million in growth for the current year, meaning lawmakers project revenue collections will backslide in the last four month of the budget. Still, that means the state could bank another substantial surplus, as it did last year. Nancy Loome of the Parents Campaign, a group that pushes for more public school funding and wants a $4,000 pay raise, said she believes lawmakers are being overly cautious.

“They are refusing to acknowledge revenue that is there,” Loome said.

Reeves defended the “very conservative estimates,” saying there would be enough money for pay raises.

Gunn and many other lawmakers hope to conclude 2019’s regular session this week, but there are other hurdles in addition to passing a budget. Lawmakers must also agree on their annual plan for state borrowing, for example, a document Gunn said was unlikely to emerge until Wednesday. (AP)

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