Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Thursday, August 23, 2018.

State legislative leaders took no position Wednesday in their budget proposal on issues such as providing a teacher pay raise and shoring up the state’s retirement system, but stressed they were leaving unallocated funds to address such items in the 2019 session.

“As we move into the legislative session there are a lot of decisions to be made,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves after the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee approved a $6.05 billion state support budget proposal Wednesday morning. “This is a starting point.” But Reeves said the proposal leaves “the flexibility to meet the needs of the state.”

Multiple leaders have endorsed a teacher pay raise for the upcoming session, which starts in January, in advance of the November general elections. Gov. Phil Bryant endorsed  at least a $25 million pay raise in his proposal released last month and also proposed allocating an additional $75 million to try to place the Public Employees Retirement System in better financial shape.

Governor’s election year budget proposes teacher pay increase, $75 million to shore up pensions

The Legislative Budget Committee proposal leaves unallocated $159 million in general fund revenue. Plus, there are other unallocated funds, such as $402 million in the rainy day fund, $13.3 million in idle cash balances and others for a total of $790.5 million in unallocated funds, prompting Reeves to proclaim, “Mississippi is in our best financial and fiscal shape in our history today.”

But much of that money, such as the rainy day funds, the leadership would be reluctant to appropriate unless to deal with emergencies, such as a recession.

While the governor’s budget proposal did not cut funding for any agency – many of which have absorbed cuts of 10 percent or more in recent years because of revenue shortfalls –  the proposal of the Budget Committee makes small cuts to most agencies. In total, the Budget Committee proposal is $62.9 million less than the $6.12 billion appropriated during the 2018 session for the current budget year, which ends June 30.

But Reeves and Gunn said their proposal leaves the flexibility for the full Legislature to decide key issues, such as a teacher pay raise, at the end of the 2019 session when they have more information on the financial condition of the state.

Gunn stressed that while he supports a teacher pay raise, state employees should not be forgotten.

“If we do a pay raise, we don’t need to forget state employees,” he said after the proposal was adopted Wednesday.

State employees have not had an across-the-board raise since the 2007 session, though, legislators have given agency directors more flexibility to provide employees raises for multiple reasons, such as achieving educational benchmarks. And within the past five years, employees earning less than $30,000 annually did receive a raise.

Still, the average annual salary of Mississippi state employees – $37,911 per year – trails that of the contiguous states.

A $25 million teacher pay raise, as proposed by the governor, would result in a $781 annual across-the-board raise. Bryant also said he would like to see a commitment made in 2019 to provide another $25 million raise in the 2020 session.

The governor’s budget does not address state employees.

Both the Legislative Budget Committee and governor’s proposals essentially level fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program at $2.2 billion – about $250 million short of full funding. MAEP provides the state’s share of the basics needed to operate local school districts.

The 2019 legislative session begins Jan. 8.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.