House rejects state employee raise

STRINGER

STRINGER

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The Republican-led House voted repeatedly to defeat state employee pay raise proposals offered by Rep. Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, as the chamber worked Wednesday on the state budget.

House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, argued the state could not afford the raise and said Stringer was playing “raw politics,” forcing the multiple votes solely to put Republicans on record for future political campaigns.

FRIERSON

FRIERSON

“You will take money from something else to pay for the pay raise,” Frierson told members of the House.

Stringer, the former chair of the Appropriations when Democrats controlled the House, said the state could afford the $39 million general fund expense of the pay raise. Stringer’s proposal was to provide state employees, who have not had a raise since 2007, an increase of at least $1,000 per year.

Stringer unsuccessfully offered the pay raise amendment 17 times as the House considered bills individually to fund each agency.

Each time, the Republican-led House voted down the pay raises. On the first effort, there were 52 votes for the raise and 69 against primarily along party lines, though a few Democrats voted with the leadership. Most of the other votes were similar.

Stringer said he would continue to offer the amendment today as the House takes up other budget bills.

Stringer argued that it is costing the state half of the amount of the pay raise to train new employees because of the large number of state workers taking jobs in the private sector to receive better pay. He said revenue growth for the year was $56.9 million over projections, meaning funds are available to pay for his proposal.

“We are passing bills exempting the sales taxes on ammo and hunting equipment,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. “We are giving sales tax rebates of $260 million for mall developments. But we won’t give state employees a pay raise for eight years?”

Frierson accused Stringer of offering the amendments just to put Republican members on record as being against the salary increase. He called the amendments “raw politics” and warned that Republican committee chairs could “sneak language” into bills forcing Democrats to make votes they did not want to take.

The debate in the House was occurring as Democrats in the Senate were offering a plan to provide state employees and teachers a pay raise, as well as phase in full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Democrats say money is available for the proposals. Republicans say that is not the case.

“Democrats would move quickly on all these fronts,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “But since we are in the minority, we’ve offered proposals which we believe appeal to many Republicans. If we could only vote on them by secret ballot, they would easily pass both chambers.”

Both the House and Senate are working on their budget proposals this week. Today the House will take up education funding, which is expected to be another big debate since the plan of the Republican leadership leaves education funding more than $250 million short of full funding.

In an unusual sign of bipartisanship, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate on Wednesday expressed frustration with the financial management of the Department of Public Safety as the chamber passed the agency’s budget bill.

The bill does not have more money for a new trooper school as requested by Gov. Phil Bryant. Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said it is still early and that the $7 million needed for a trooper school could be added later this session, but the Legislature needed to get a better understanding of how the agency is spending funds.

Also on Wednesday, Attorney General Jim Hood announced he was depositing $52.7 million in the state general fund from lawsuit settlements. Those funds could be used for a number of items. Hood said he hopes some of the funds are used to enhance drug courts across the state and to develop a pilot re-entry program where convicted felons would be able to work and receive counseling upon first leaving prison.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com