Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, left, and House Speaker Philip Gunn speak to media concerning the legislative session and the coronavirus Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

The state Senate, late on a key deadline day, passed a bill through committee that would give Mississippi public school teachers pay raises, ensuring that the proposed raises remain alive in the legislative process and aren’t linked to a sweeping House tax bill.

At one point Tuesday, it appeared that both of the bills written with the sole intent to provide a pay raise to teachers would die as legislative leaders drew battle lines over the controversial House proposal that would restructure the state’s tax system.

The House refused on Tuesday to take up a Senate bill that would increase teacher salaries by $1,000, ensuring that bill’s death. The Senate, meanwhile, appeared poised to let die a House bill that would increase teacher salaries by a similar amount. Late in the day, though, Senate leaders blinked and passed the House proposal.

At the heart of the deadline theatrics was debate over House Speaker Philip Gunn’s tax proposal, which would eliminate the state’s personal income tax, cut the grocery tax in half and raise the sales tax on most other items by 2.5 cents on each $1 purchase. Gunn’s proposal, which he considers his most substantive policy proposal in his three terms as speaker, was met with public criticism by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and other Senate leaders.

Notably, Gunn included the teacher pay raise in his tax proposal, which several education advocates feared could lead to the teacher pay raise being caught up and potentially used as leverage to pass the tax plan. When asked Tuesday as the drama unfolded if there was a possibility the session could end without teachers receiving a raise, Gunn said, “I do not know. I do know if (teachers) support the income tax bill, there is more benefit to them.”

Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, who earlier in the day said he believed the House should take up the Senate pay raise bill, said he reversed course late in the day and passed out of his committee the House bill to “make sure politics did not enter the fray” for teachers.

“We greatly appreciate the Senate leadership on this most critical issue, particularly that of Chairman DeBar who has been supportive of a pay raise for teachers since he became Education Committee chair,” said Kelly Riley, executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators. She said she was particularly appreciative of DeBar’s efforts to ensure teachers did not get caught up in the battle over the tax bill.

Gunn said earlier he incorporated the teacher pay language in the bill to highlight the fact it would result in about $3,000 in additional money for most teachers — about $2,000 from the income tax cut and $1,000 from the pay raise.

Hosemann has not ruled out the possibility of passing a version of the Gunn tax plan during the 2021 session, but he stressed that the proposal has many “unintended consequences” that he said could be detrimental to the state’s economy.

When asked earlier 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.”

The potential death of the pay raise bills on Tuesday would not necessarily have meant it would be impossible to provide a salary increase for K-12 grade teachers this session, but the process would become less certain and more chaotic. Gunn’s tax proposal, which faces a mid-March deadline for action in the Senate, would have become the best vehicle remaining to provide teachers a pay raise during the 2021 session.

“While being used as a bargaining chip is something to which we’ve become accustomed, it still stings,” said Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, on Tuesday afternoon before the Senate passed the bill out of committee. “We suspected the pay raise and our educators’ livelihoods were being used as a political football. We wanted to be wrong.”

Jones continued: “That said, there is time for cooler heads to prevail. Legislative leaders can still find avenues independent of the tax bill to ensure Mississippi teachers get the pay raise they so deserve. This fight should be over the merits of the tax bill, and the tax bill alone. Leave educators out of it.”

After the Senate bill passed committee on Tuesday evening, the Mississippi Association of Educators praised DeBar and Senate leaders on social media, saying they are “thrilled to see a clean pay raise bill still alive.”

READ MORE: Education groups rip Speaker Gunn’s massive tax proposal

Another proposal also could be alive in the legislative process that has the legal code section that could be amended to provide a pay raise for teachers. Even with that hope alive, education groups fumed on Tuesday.

“This is politics at its worst,” Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, said before the Senate passed its bill. “Speaker Gunn is apparently willing to sacrifice teachers in order to get what he wants on a tax swap bill that is opposed by nearly every citizen and business group I can think of. Teachers have been put through the wringer. They deserve much better than the way they’ve been treated. I am hoping that the Senate will come through for our teachers and get a pay raise bill out of committee before tonight’s deadline.”

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

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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.