By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant reiterated his support of a merit-based pay increase for teachers Wednesday during his annual State of the State speech.
Bryant, speaking for about 35 minutes to the joint legislative session in the House chamber, said he hopes to accelerate his pilot performance-based pay program.
But the governor indicated after the speech he would not shut the door on an across-the-board pay raise during the 2014 session.
“I favor merit pay, but they are not mutually exclusive,” he said as he left the House chamber.
The Republican House leadership, led by Speaker Philip Gunn, has advocated providing an across-the-board pay raise for teachers during the 2014 session if money is available.
Against that backdrop, Bryant said Wednesday, “I have long been an advocate for increasing teacher salaries, and I believe we should pay good teachers well.” He added his “strategic plan calls for implementing merit pay in at least 70 percent of Mississippi school districts by 2018.
“Now it is my hope that revenue will be sufficient to increase the current merit pay appropriation by a substantial amount and fast track the pilot program to get raises to teachers sooner.”
Besides legislators, most of the statewide elected officials, many agency heads and members of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals attended the event carried live on public radio and television. The governor and first lady Deborah Bryant received heavy applause upon their introduction to the joint assembly and the governor was interrupted several times by applause as he spoke.
The governor highlighted what he believes are his successes during his first two years in office. He cited adding 9,000 jobs to the workforce during 2013 and the fact the unemployment rate has dropped from 9.4 percent to 8.3 percent during his tenure. Mississippi’s unemployment rate is still in the bottom 10 and above the national rate of 6.7 percent.
“As governor, I am thankful for the opportunity to chart the course forward for our state,” he said. “Our hard work is yielding rewards, and we are equipping ourselves with the tools to take advantage of the next opportunities that will come our way.”
In the Democratic response, Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said too many Mississippians are still falling behind.
“We can and we must do better,” he said endorsing legislative Democrats’ proposals to expand Medicaid and increase education funding among other things.
The governor reiterated his support for many of the issues that he had endorsed at earlier events, such as changes to the criminal justice system designed to hold down prison costs by giving judges options other than prison for some offenders.
But the governor stressed that he still supports tough prison sentences for some offenders.
“I have no sympathy for violent or career criminals, and I believe that any modification to the correctional system should put the victims first,” he said.
The governor, as he often does, voiced his support for fiscal budgetary restraint, performance-based budgeting, conservative social principles and personal responsibility. He said he is proud the teen pregnancy birth rate has dropped 10 percent in the midst of his Our Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi campaign.