- Associated Press - Thursday, March 28, 2019

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi lawmakers on Thursday gave final approval to a $1,500 pay raise for the state’s public school teachers beginning July 1, sending it to Gov. Phil Bryant for his approval or veto.

The Senate and House gave rapid approval Thursday to an agreement reached late Wednesday on Senate Bill 2770 by negotiators, turning back attempts by Democrats to seek a pair of $2,000 pay raises over two years.

The move resolves one of the biggest remaining dramas of the 2019 legislative session as it nears its conclusion. Lawmakers continued Thursday working on budgets for the upcoming year that would pay for the raise, which Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican, estimated would cost $58 million. That’s less than the $76 million previously estimated.

The raise is higher than the pair of $500 increases over two years that Republican leaders had initially proposed. But Democrats said state revenues are growing, state savings accounts are bulging, and the state can afford even more.

“Send the bill back so we can give the teachers the pay raise they deserve,” said Senate Democratic Minority Leader Derrick Simmons of Greenville. “We’re talking about a pay raise that amounts to a little more than a Happy Meal.”

But Republicans said the state can’t afford the larger proposal, citing other needs and uncertainty about how the economy will perform in the future.

“It’s not where we want to be,” House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett of Long Beach told House members. “It’s what we can do.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, a Republican from Hollandale, told senators that giving a larger raise to teachers would mean reducing spending for other state services.

“What would you be willing to cut, because there is nothing left out on the table,” Clarke said. “Everything has been spent, I can assure you.”

The Senate and House voted overwhelmingly for the raise. Nearly all the opponents in both chambers were Democrats who said the raise wasn’t enough.

“I support a teacher pay raise,” said Simmons, who voted no. “I just don’t think it’s sufficient.”

The bill would also boost the long-frozen minimum salaries for assistant teachers from $12,500 to $14,000. The Mississippi Department of Education says there are 31,000 classroom teachers and 3,500 assistants statewide. A number of other school personnel with educator licenses would also be covered.

House members had been fighting with Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for days over his desire to increase funding for a program that pays for special education students to attend private schools.

Bennett said he flatly refused to increase money that had been sought to clear a waiting list, saying the program is set to expire next year and that a legislative review raised questions about its effectiveness.

However, the House and Senate later Thursday passed $2 million to expand the program, although many opponents said didn’t know about it. The money was included in a list of $27 million in special projects in Senate Bill 3049 paid for with surplus money from last year’s budget. When senators voted on the bill, the full text of the agreement wasn’t available online and a list of projects was handed out moments before the vote. House Speaker Philip Gunn tells reporters the money is a “Senate priority.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, a Gautier Republican, said Wednesday that he considered the new spending plan a “good budget,” in part because it gives raises and increases some services.

Republican leaders in the House said state agency employees who have gotten no pay raises in the last three years will get a 3 percent raise, although Democrats warned that many employees who are still poorly paid may see nothing. Clarke said pay increases of up to 2 percent would also be provided to some university and community college employees.

Spending driven by state revenue will go up by nearly 4 percent in the budget year beginning July 1, as strong state revenue will bolster not only pay but a number of other items. Figures presented to the state Senate show the state will spend nearly $6.4 billion in the coming year, up nearly $300 million from where the state started the current year.

The state will also spend more money to offer medical, mental health and rehabilitation services to people at home, instead of in hospitals and nursing homes.

The overall budget will be more than $20 billion including federal money.


Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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