BOBBY HARRISON: Teacher pay politics predates change in party leadership

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

JACKSON

Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, says Mississippi lawmakers were arguing about teacher pay raises long before there was a partisan divide in the Legislature.

Moak, who is the House’s minority leader, began serving in the Legislature in 1984 – long before the Republicans had a significant presence, much less were the majority. Then, Moak recalled, different factions of primarily Democrats often argued about the size of teacher pay raises. The last great fight over teacher pay occurred in 2000.

It was Ronnie Musgrove’s first year as governor.

But the legislative leadership said the state finances were not strong enough at the time to commit to a multiyear raise. Speaker Tim Ford, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and both Appropriations chairmen, like Musgrove all Democrats at the time, agreed that the 2000 session was not the time to do the pay raise.

Musgrove tried to keep pressure on his fellow Democrats through the bully pulpit, but he was having limited success. The deadline to pass a teacher pay raise came and went during the 2000 session with no legislative action. It looked as though Musgrove would not be successful in his first year on what could be argued was his primary campaign promise.

The change in momentum on the issue came innocently enough because of comments then-Ways and Means Chairman Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said during a casual conversation referencing a cartoon character.

When asked about the pay raise, he laughed and said, he agreed with Snuffy Smith: “Time’s a wastin.”

Those comments were published in the newspaper over the weekend. On Monday, Tuck, thinking because of the comments of McCoy, a key Ford ally, that the House leadership was about to reverse course and endorse a pay raise, leaving her looking like the primary obstacle to a teacher pay increase, called a news conference to endorse a multiyear raise.

Ford, who had been in Alabama on business, was blindsided by the news conference. When he returned to the Capitol, he told members of the media that upon further reflection, perhaps the effort should be made to reach the higher national average in teacher pay.

That national average proposal, though, was never seriously considered.

The only caveat in Tuck’s proposal was that the pay raise would go into effect in years when revenue grew by at least 5 percent. Musgrove said he disagreed with the trigger. But since the pay raise proposal was being considered outside the normal legislative calendar because it was brought up after the deadline, he signed the proposal with the trigger in it. A little more than a year later in special session he was successful in convincing the Legislature to remove the trigger. That was a good thing for teachers. State revenue growth was less than 5 percent each of the six years of the phase-in of the pay raise.

The six-year, $350 million proposal significantly increased teacher pay. Mississippi teacher pay, though, is still near the bottom. Democrats and Republicans in the House are arguing now about whether a four-year, $350 million teacher pay raise proposed by the Republican House leadership is big enough. Democrats say it is not.

The so-called conventional wisdom is that Republican leaders believe passage of a teacher pay raise is crucial to their effort to maintain and perhaps increase their slim majority in the House.

It perhaps is no coincidence that during calendar year 2015, an election year, teachers will receive two pay raises totaling $1,500 in the Republican plan. In the final two years, the pay raises in the Republican proposal, as in Tuck’s proposal, are contingent on a trigger – this time revenue growth of at least 3 percent.

Like Moak said, the parties and the leadership might change, but the politics of teacher pay raises remain.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him atbobby.harrison@journalinc.com or (601) 353-3119.