Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
Remember mid-January, when seemingly all legislative leaders could do was sing the praises of public school teachers as they proposed historic pay raises?
House and Senate leaders garnered broad praise from public education groups in January for passing proposals that would not only offer short-term raises, but increase the teacher pay scale in the long run.
But since then, lawmakers have largely focused their time and energy into cutting or eliminating the state’s income tax, which generates billions in revenue that helps pay those teacher salaries, among many other critical public services.
Teachers across the state are having trouble separating the teacher pay raise and income tax cut proposals.
“The song lawmakers have always sung was that we can’t fund MAEP (the state’s public education funding formula) because we don’t have the money. Now they’re pointing to all this extra money to justify cutting the income tax? It’s not adding up,” said Cagney Weaver, a national board certified teacher at Biloxi Upper Elementary. “I really do think there are good intentions in wanting to pay teachers more and we’ll see what happens with those bills. But why aren’t they talking more about how cutting the income tax could gut the state budget and keep them from paying us down the road?”
As bickering between House and Senate leaders over tax cut proposals continues to worsen, lawmakers face a critical deadline on March 1 to decide what to do with the teacher pay raise bills. And educators, watching closely this week, worry that teacher pay could potentially get caught in the middle of the tax cut fight.
“There’s such a long way to go before anything meaningful gets done for teachers,” Weaver said. “And what reason have lawmakers ever given us to feel optimistic about any of this?”
READ MORE: The Mississippi Republican income tax bet
One year ago today, House and Senate leaders were publicly fighting over a major tax cut proposal. They faced the first major deadline to handle bills originating in the opposite chamber, and because of the bickering, many bills died a quiet death without a vote or even debate. Among the legislation caught up in the fight: a pay raise for public school teachers.
Today, House and Senate leaders are publicly fighting over a major tax cut proposal. They face the first major deadline to handle bills originating in the opposite chamber, and because of the bickering, Capitol observers fear many bills will die a quiet death without a vote or even debate. Among the legislation caught up in the fight: a pay raise for public school teachers.
But for a last-second save last year by Senate leaders, the teacher pay raise would have died on deadline day because Speaker of the House Philip Gunn was upset with a lack of Senate support for his tax cut plan.
A lot of this session looks and feels the same as last year. Both chambers passed their own teacher pay raise bills once again — although this year’s proposals are much larger and would change the pay structure moving forward. The Senate plan would increase annual spending on teacher pay by $210 million, while the House plan would increase annual spending on teacher pay by $219 million. Either proposal, if passed, would represent one of the largest public school teacher salary investments in decades.
But as lawmakers in both chambers mull cutting or eliminating the state’s second-largest revenue source, are those investments sound ones that can be guaranteed long-term?
Gunn, like last year, is expending great political energy to completely eliminate the income tax cut, which could result in $1.5 billion less per year in collected revenue. Hosemann, in response to Gunn, introduced a much smaller income tax cut, but one that could still result in $317 million less per year in collected revenue.
Hosemann says Gunn’s plan is fiscally irresponsible in the long run, and Gunn says Hosemann’s plan doesn’t go far enough. The rancor among House and Senate leaders about their dueling tax cut proposals is growing by the hour.
That fighting has many Capitol observers fearing this deadline day will mean the death of many bills. Teachers worry about their pay raise bill, though it appears unlikely teacher pay will die this week. But it’s very possible lawmakers could opt to kill one of the two pending teacher pay proposals — a prospect that puts many educators on edge.
And even if the pay raise does survive this week, Mississippi teachers will remain anxious over the financial uncertainty of a looming tax cut. All of these thoughts and sentiments are just part of the long-standing feeling among so many public school teachers that lawmakers aren’t in their corner.
“If Mississippi cannot afford to fully fund public schools and pay teachers at the Southeastern average, we cannot afford an income tax cut. It’s that simple,” Nancy Loome of public education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign wrote last week. “… Legislators are telling teachers that they can’t afford to bring teacher pay to the Southeastern average, telling parents that they can’t afford to fully fund their public schools, and telling children that they can’t afford to honor the Building Fund that would help to fix their schools’ moldy classrooms and broken bathrooms.”
As the Capitol grandstanding heats up, all teachers can do is wait to see if they’ll get the support they’ve requested for years.
“Every session is another letdown in some way,” Weaver said. “Our districts and schools do such a good job working with what we’ve got, but that’s not sustainable. The people in Jackson need to do better for us. It’s as simple as that.”