For the first two sessions of the current four-year legislative term, it could be argued that House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, played not second but third fiddle to Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
It appeared that Reeves, who likes to refer to himself as a policy wonk without actually using those words, and Bryant were controlling the agenda, and, with a few notable exceptions, Gunn was just along for the ride.
But not any more.
Gunn’s vocal support of a teacher pay raise in December during a interview with a group of political reporters took everyone by surprise. And then earlier this week during an appearance before the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government/ Capitol press corps, the first-term speaker not only reiterated that support, but made it clear that he wants an across-the-board raise – not the performance-based measure that Bryant had said all future teacher pay increases should be based upon.
Before Gunn stepped center stage to talk about a teacher pay raise, no one was giving the issue serious consideration for the 2014 session. Most thought the issue would arise during the 2015 session – an election year where legislators have traditionally doled out such raises.
But with the speaker of the House putting his support behind the issue, it will get serious consideration in the 2014 session.
It is hard to fathom a scenario where a teacher pay raise bill brought to the floor of the House by the Republican leadership of the chamber would not garner a majority vote. Then, the Senate would be hard-pressed to kill the measure.
Assuming the legislation passes the Senate, then the question would be whether the governor would veto a proposal that provided a pay raise that was not based on performance.
It should be pointed out that Gunn stressed he is not against merit pay for teachers at some point. His contention is that there is no evaluation method in place on which to base pay for performance, and it will take time to develop one. In the meantime, he said most teachers, who have not had a pay raise in seven years, need one now.
Gunn is the first Republican speaker of the House since the late 1800s. And the Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since then.
During the first two years of total Republican control of the Legislature and the governor’s office, to a large extent Gunn attached his support to issues that were more associated with other politicians. It was Reeves’ charter school legislation, though the House did limit the scope of the measure, and it was the governor’s overall education package.
But if the teacher pay raise passes this term, it will be because Gunn was front and center – perhaps much to the chagrin of Bryant and Reeves, who have been notably quiet on the issue.
Gunn’s proposal also is putting some public education proponents in a bit of a difficult position. It would be hard to find someone directly involved in the field of education who does not believe Mississippi teachers need a pay raise.
Mississippi teachers earn the second lowest salary nationally – an average of just under $42,000 per year according to a 2013 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. The national average is $56,383 and $48,563 in Mississippi’s neighboring states of Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The problem is that the state program through which teachers are paid is the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP has been underfunded a whopping $1.2 billion since 2008.
A teacher pay raise places educators in a quandary of supporting more money for teachers while the state is not keeping the commitment to the local school districts that it already has made. But with the speaker taking an active interest in passing a pay raise, there is at least an even-money chance it will be a reality before the curtain is closed on the 2014 session.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (601) 353-3119.