Toni Coleman, Center Hill High School economics teacher, from left, shares a laugh with seniors Terracita Brunson, Jasmine Ellis and Fontasia Fentress as they work on a class project in Olive Branch Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

As Mississippi legislators grapple with how much and whether they can afford to provide a pay raise to teachers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, what occurred in 2000 might be of interest.

Lawmakers that year passed the state’s largest teacher pay increase: a $337 million proposal that was enacted over a six-year period. That pay raise is equivalent to $523.9 million in today’s dollars.

There are some similarities between what happened then and what is going on now.

In the 1999 gubernatorial election, then-Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove campaigned on moving the pay for Mississippi teachers to the Southeastern average. During the 2019 gubernatorial election, both candidates — Democrat Jim Hood and Republican Tate Reeves — promised large pay raises for teachers.

About a month before the November 2019 general election, Reeves, the eventual winner, proposed raising teacher pay $4,300 over a four-year period, costing, he said at the time, a total of $225 million — far less than the 2000 plan, but still a lofty goal.

READ MORE: Pay for teachers in Mississippi is “extremely low” compared to other Southern states.

In 2000, like now, there were events beyond the control of Mississippi’s politicians making it difficult for them to commit to spending such a large amount of money.

Currently, of course, that event is the COVID-19 pandemic. The pay raise that was planned for the year after the 2019 election was scrapped at the onset of the pandemic because of fears over how the coronavirus would impact the Mississippi economy and revenue collections for state government. Legislators are considering a pay raise again this session.

But there also were economic headwinds in 2000. Granted, there was no event nearly as significant or deadly as the pandemic, but there was a sizable recession that might have impacted Mississippi more than any other state. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the exodus of low paying jobs from America to other countries reached a crescendo. Mississippi had more of those jobs per capita than any state in the nation.

The Mississippi economy tanked. Fiscal year 2001 was the first in the state’s modern history where revenue collections were less for that year than the previous year.

At least in part because of the bad economy, legislative leaders in 2000 said the state could not afford a teacher pay raise — especially such a large one. Despite that headwind, Musgrove continued to lobby for the pay raise, though it looked that with both House Speaker Tim Ford and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck being in opposition, his primary campaign promise would go unfulfilled.

But then some good, old-fashioned legislative distrust raised its head helping to build momentum. When asked about the pay raise one day, then influential House Ways and Means Chair Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said, “To quote Snuffy Smith, time’s a wastin’.” McCoy’s comments were printed over that weekend as being supportive of passing the raise that session.

On that Monday, Senate leaders, knowing McCoy was one of Ford’s key allies, feared that their House counterparts were poised to announce a plan for a pay raise. The Senate leaders, not wanting to be viewed as the only obstacle to the pay raise, called a hastily organized news conference to announce a pay raise plan of their own.

That plan, proposed by Lt. Gov. Tuck, was the one that finally passed. But the numbers were similar enough to what Musgrove had proposed that everyone could claim victory.

As a sidenote, the Senate plan had language saying the salary increase would not go into effect any year where revenue collections did not grow by at least 5%.

While Musgrove opposed the revenue trigger, he feared that fighting it might result in the death of the legislation. Instead, he signed the legislation and later that summer called a special session where he was successful in convincing legislators to remove the trigger.

Musgrove, though, was not serving as governor when most of the pay raise went into effect. Because of the state’s dire economic situation, the pay raise was backloaded with the bulk of it going into effect in the last years of the multi-year commitment.

By that time, Musgrove had lost re-election to Haley Barbour. While revenue collections continued to be tepid when Barbour took office, he never tried to pass legislation that would allow the state to back out of the commitment to teachers, though the pay raise placed a tremendous strain on the state budget.

The point is that there were politicians of both parties at the time who believed it was a commitment worth keeping.

But by the time the pay raise was fully enacted, other states had also increased the salaries for teachers, meaning that Southeastern average still was not reached. Still, the record pay raise put Mississippi teachers closer to that elusive Southeastern average.

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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.