Legislators grapple with how to fund state employee pay raise as budget demands mount

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Additional revenue may have to be found at the end of the session if Mississippi’s about 25,000 state employees are going to receive a pay raise, which would be the first since the 2007 session for many of them.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale and Senate Appropriations chairman, left, shares a laugh with Mississippi Commissioner of Insurance Mike Chaney during the 2019 legislative session in Jackson Wednesday, January 9, 2019.

“Hopefully we will get a revenue bump in March” near the end of the legislative session to provide a raise, said  Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, Tuesday as the House and Senate began in earnest the task of putting together a state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 for health care, public safety, transportation, public education and other agencies.

Often, legislative leaders meet at the end of the session to raise or lower the revenue estimate for the upcoming fiscal year based on the latest economic outlook. If that estimate is raised, it could provide additional funds for a state employee salary increase.

On the House side, Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gautier, said he and other leaders are still working to determine if and how much of a pay raise can be garnered for both state employees and teachers.

According to information from the Mississippi Personnel Board, the average salary of state employees is $37,911 compared to the average of the four contiguous states of $49,799.

Mississippi teachers ranked last nationally in terms of teacher salaries at $42,925, based on 2017 figures compiled by the National Education Association. The four neighboring states average $49,698 annually.

The Senate already has approved a $25 million pay raise for teachers – an average of $500 per teacher – for the upcoming fiscal year.

But Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has said any teacher pay raise should be coupled with a pay raise for state employees.

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, not willing to wait until the end of the session, offered an amendment Tuesday to provide an annual $1,000 increase for three years for state employees. The Republican leadership defeated Hines’ effort.

Hines said there is enough revenue available in reserves to provide the pay raise.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville

“This is a real step for improving the quality of life for the people who provide services,” said Hines.

While state revenue collections have improved in recent months, legislators still are struggling to find funds to address all the needs.

The Legislature already is committing $61 million in general fund revenue to shore up the state’s retirement system, which covers both state employees, public school educators, higher education faculty and staff and local governmental employees.

Local government officials will be responsible for providing the funds to shore up their portion of the retirement system.

Plus, Clarke said additional funds are needed for Medicaid and for Child Protection Services, which is under federal court order to improve the state’s foster case system.

Overall, excluding the additional funds for the retirement system and for Child Protection Services and Medicaid, it appears the legislative leadership is looking to level fund most state agencies.

The level funding also would apply for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the bulk of the state’s share for the basic operation of local school districts. MAEP already was underfunded $240 million by the 2018 Legislature for the current school year.

In the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday, many members stressed the need for a pay raise for state employees. There were concerns that because of low pay that agencies were having a difficult time filling slots in the Department of Corrections, for the driver’s license bureaus and for state medical examiners.

Sen. Walter Michel, R-Ridgeland, said in many instances the Corrections officers are making $11 per hour and that they are leaving for better paying jobs.

“It is a public safety issue with inmates not being guarded properly,” Simmons said.