By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The House Republican leadership thwarted 23 attempts Thursday to provide state employees a pay raise.
But one amendment, offered by Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, that mandates that a plan be developed to provide a $1,000 pay raise to employees of the state Department of Education for the upcoming fiscal year, passed via voice vote.
House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, who opposed the other pay raise amendments, offered primarily by Rep. Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, did not oppose Sullivan’s proposal.
Later on, Frierson said he interpreted Sullivan’s amendment to mean that a plan had to be developed for a pay raise, but that one does not have to be enacted during the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Sullivan and the two co-sponsors of the amendment, Reps. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, and Donnie Bell, R-Fulton, said it was their intent in proposing the amendment that the pay raise go into effect July 1.
At any rate, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said, “It still has a long way to go in the process. We will continue to work it out.”
The Senate still must address the issue and ultimately House and Senate leaders will meet to craft a final budget compromise that then will be voted on by the two chambers in late March or early April. The ongoing votes this week in the House and Senate on the budget are important in defining the two chambers’ positions on issues for later in the session during negotiations between the leadership of the two chambers.
While the bill Sullivan, Bell and Reynolds amended deals with the Department of Education, they said that common sense would dictate any pay raise would be across the board and not deal with just one agency.
“I think most everybody wants to give state employees a pay raise,” Sullivan said. “They have not had one in years.”
While the issue of the state employee pay raise dominated much of the debate Wednesday and Thursday in the House, surprisingly, little was said about the budget for public education, which essentially is level-funded with the exception of $25 million – the bulk of which is for a teacher pay raise that is supported by the House leadership.
Under the proposal, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program that provides the bulk of state funding for local school districts is $265 million short off full funding. Since 2008, the districts already have been underfunded by $1.2 billion.
No proposal was offered to increase funding, but Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, said she is optimistic that the bill might be reconsidered next week with additional funds added to the local school districts
During debate of education funding on the House floor, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, asked House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, “Wouldn’t it make sense to reduce the shortfall over time?”
Moore said it would, though, no effort has been initiated to do that in the House.
Senate Democrats have proposed to phase in full funding of MAEP over a three-year period, but no legislation is in place at this time to accomplish that goal.
Over a two-day period, Stringer or some other Democratic legislator offered amendments to 47 bills funding state agencies to provide at least a $1,000 pay raise to state employees.
At times, Frierson indicated that a pay raise might be considered later in the session as the state revenue picture continues to improve, but he said during media questioning later on, “It (pay raise) would be difficult to do – very difficult. But I think… it could be done next year – just what Johnny (Stringer) offered.”
State employees have not had a raise since the 2007 session. Stringer argued it could be afforded this session since revenue projections for the year already are nearly $57 million over projections and the state has about $500 million in reserves.
The pay raise would cost about $38 million in general fund revenue.
Most of the votes on the pay raise broke down about the same – about 50 primarily Democrats in support and about 66 primarily Republicans in opposition. There were some party-switchers on some of the votes.
For instance, Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, voted for some of the pay raise proposals and Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth and Jody Steverson of Ripley, both Democrats, voted against some of them.
During budget work, Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, proposed a $1,000 raise for legislators. It received 18 votes in the 122-member chamber.