Speaker Philip Gunn said he didn't know the human effects of killing a postpartum Medicaid extension bill. But top doctors say they gave him the details weeks ago. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Mississippi’s leading education advocates are unanimously critical of a massive House plan that would fundamentally change the state’s tax structure, expressing concern that it cuts public education funding in the long run.

The proposal, which would eliminate the state’s personal income tax and raise the state’s sales tax, among other things, was introduced less than 24 hours before House members were asked to approve it. The House on Tuesday passed the bill, which will now move to the Senate for consideration.

Describing the proposal as “reprehensible,” “reckless,” and a “political ploy” that holds teachers “hostage,” education advocates have more questions than answers after what they say was a rushed and secretive process.

“It was kept under wraps,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, whose organization sent an email to members warning them of similar tax cuts in Kansas and Oklahoma that resulted in decreased school funding and, in some school districts, the transition to a four-day week.

READ MORE: House leaders move to eliminate Mississippi income tax, raise sales and other taxes in landmark bill.

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, the group that represents teachers, and Philip Burchfield, president of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, have similar concerns.

“With MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program) already underfunded and our average teacher salary lagging behind the Southeastern average by more than $5,000, we quite literally cannot afford to let a bill sail through on the promise that everything will work out in the end,” Jones said in a statement. “All Mississippians — educators or otherwise — deserve time to research and understand the effects of this proposal. We should hear from reputable tax policy experts, not just from politicians, about the impact this bill would have on the state.”

Adrian Shipman, a board member for the Mississippi Public Education PAC, issued a statement opposing the bill.

“If enacted, HB1439 could further reduce available state funds by a third, impacting schools and communities for decades and threatening access to quality education and essential services for our most vulnerable Mississippians,” Shipman said. “Our schools deserve better than this far-reaching policy and its reckless 24-hour push through the chamber. Our communities deserve better. Our children deserve better.”

Adding fuel to the fire, House leaders took the unusual step of incorporating the House’s teacher pay plan language into the tax bill. When asked on Wednesday why the teacher pay plan was put into the House tax bill and whether a teacher pay raise was contingent on the tax bill passing, Gunn said, “Why would they not want both? No logical reason I can understand.”

Gunn said the bill, because it would eliminate personal income tax, will mean an additional $2,500 to $3,000 for teachers who earn between $45,000 and $50,000 per year.

“That is simple math,” Gunn said.

But House leaders adding the teacher pay raise to the proposal as a sweetener to prevent opposition from education advocates has not gone according to plan.

Jones, Loome and others explicitly criticized the inclusion of the teacher pay raise in the tax proposal.

“I wish I could say we were surprised, but we are far too familiar with public education being used as a bargaining chip and teachers’ livelihoods being treated as a political football,” Jones said. “While it may not have been intended as a threat to educators, public education advocacy groups, or the lawmakers who will vote on this bill, it is hard not to view it as such.”

Kelly Riley, executive director of Mississippi Professional Educators, said it plainly in an email to the group’s members. By including teacher pay raise language in the bill, despite the fact there are already two separate bills in both the House and the Senate, “the House can let (the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill) die on the House calendar which will only leave (the House’s teacher pay raise bill) and HB 1439 (the tax bill) alive with the pay raise language.”

“To be perfectly clear — the Speaker is using educators to get what he wants,” Riley said.

While legislative leaders are calling the bill “revenue-neutral” and promise state coffers and public services won’t take a big hit, educators are suspicious.

“There will come a time in which the financial resources won’t be there, and usually it’s the public schools that take the fall on that,” Burchfield said.

Each year, he said, teachers and schools are told the money isn’t there for increased funding, and he believes the fallout from this bill could give legislators yet another reason to say there’s no money for schools.

“They always say, ‘Well, we just don’t have the money this year,'” said Burchfield. “But the question for them is, ‘Why?'”

Loome has specific concerns about the impact on the state’s early learning collaboratives, or pre-K programs. The programs are funded by state dollars and donations, which are eligible for dollar-for-dollar tax credits.

Loome pointed out about half of the collaboratives’ funding is made up of donations, and if this bill passes and the tax credit is done away with, the collaboratives will be negatively impacted.

“I think a lot of people are not going to make that donation,” she said. “And the increase in pre-K that we need will never come.”

Mississippi Today reporter Bobby Harrison contributed to this report.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.