Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, speaking, and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn disagree about how much Mississippi income tax to cut. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

House leaders, for the second consecutive year on a key deadline day, killed a Senate bill, essentially forcing Senate leaders to pass a House bill to be used as the vehicle to provide Mississippi teachers a pay raise.

Leaders from both chambers argued their bill should be used for the pay raise.

For much of Tuesday, the final day to pass general bills from the other chamber out of committee, leadership from the two chambers played chicken on who would blink first and take the other chamber’s teacher pay bill.

“We have two Senate (teacher pay bills) in the House,” said Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, who held a series of meetings throughout the state last year on the issue of teacher pay. “It is the Senate’s No. 1 priority.”

Late Tuesday afternoon after passing the House bill to ensure a teacher pay raise remained alive during the 2022 session DeBar said, “The bottom line is the teachers are the winners here today. The way politics is played up here only lessens our ability to attract teachers … We need to resolve this issue and get on to other things.”

But House Education Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, countered: “Our priority was a teacher pay raise – it was our first bill — and their priority was medical marijuana as their first bill.

“It was our first bill we passed and sent to them early and quite frankly it should already be on the governor’s desk.”

After the House adjourned for the day without calling committee meetings to take up the Senate bill, the Senate leaders, instead of letting the all the teacher pay proposals die, opted to take up the House bill. Still, the Senate placed its language in the House bill.

In the end, nobody outside of the ornate Mississippi Capitol cares much whether the bill that will provide the largest pay increase for teachers since the early 2000s is a House bill or a Senate bill. Still, the song and dance routine illustrates the current level of divisiveness as leaders stare down each other over whether the Senate will take up Speaker Philip Gunn’s massive tax cut that will phase out roughly one third of the general fund revenue in the coming years.

A similar song and dance occurred last session when the House leaders killed a Senate pay raise bill, forcing the Senate to take up the House bill. The 2021 legislation provided teachers roughly a $1,000 per year raise.

In 2021 it was obvious to many that the House was trying to use the teacher pay plan as leverage to ensure the passage of Gunn’s tax cut proposal.

On whether he believes this year’s standoff was because of the income tax cut, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, said, “You have to ask the House about that.”

Hosemann continued “Sen. DeBar reached out to the House, and I reached out to the House on this, and they adjourned and went home. Sen. DeBar showed excellent leadership in making sure that teachers don’t become pawns in some other game … He has shown the patience of Job.”

But Gunn said the House wanted it proposal passed because, “our bill is better on a number of factors.” He said it provides a bigger, more immediate raise.

The House plan would increase starting teacher pay from $37,000 a year to $43,125. This would put Mississippi above both the Southeastern average of $39,754 and the national average of $41,163 for starting teachers. The Senate plan would increase starting pay to $40,000, but also would provide substantial increases at five-year intervals throughout a teacher’s career.

The House plan would be enacted in one year while the Senate proposal would be phased in over two years. The Senate’s plan includes a year-two, $44 million across-the-board increase of $1,000 per teacher. Both plans now include a $2,000 per year increase for teacher assistants, though, the Senate plan phases the increase for teacher assistants in over two year. Including the teacher assistants, the Senate plan will cost about $230 million compared to $220 million for the House proposal,

“I’m not willing to pass a bill – when we’ve told teachers wait until next year, wait until next year – where there’s millions held back that they don’t get until the second year, an election year,” Bennett said. “… Teachers need all the money this year. We have the money and they don’t need to wait on it.”

Both plans would “restructure” the teacher salary ladder that determines pay for teachers at various levels of experience and training. The House plan would provide more immediate increases ranging from $4,000 to $6,000. The Senate plan after two years would provide an average increase of $4,800, but would provide for larger bumps in pay at each five-year interval in a teacher’s career.

Mississippi’s teacher pay by several metrics is the lowest in the nation. Mississippi public education advocates spent much of Tuesday monitoring the game of one upmanship played by House and Senate leaders.

“We are certainly encourage by senators standing up and being leaders for the state,” Antonio Castanon Luna, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Educators, which membership he said includes 10% of the state’s classroom teachers. He said the pay raise will help teachers battle inflation and be able to remain in the classroom.

And the end of the day, he conceded it did not matter whether the pay raise was a Senate or House bill.

“To us it is about students having quality teachers,” he said.

Kelly Riley, executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators, said, ““We were very frustrated today with the House letting the Senate’s two pay raise bills die. We are very appreciative of the statesmanship and leadership of the Senate. Today’s actions by the Senate, and the lack thereof by the House have sent a clear message to the state’s educators as to who truly prioritizes our state’s teachers and children.”

More than likely the final teacher pay plan will be hammered out by legislative leaders during the final days of the session and will include elements of the plans offered by both the Senate and House. But the final plan will be a House bill instead of a Senate bill.

That is important to some in the Capitol, but the end result for teachers is whether they receive a pay raise. And at the end of a chaotic Tuesday, their pay raise was still on track in the 2022 legislative session.

Clarification 3/2/22: Some figures in this story about the Senate’s proposal have been updated to reflect the latest information obtained by Mississippi Today.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

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.