Lawmakers divided in votes over pay raise plan

Published 6:00 am Monday, February 18, 2008

Area representatives were split in their votes last week on aHouse bill that would see pay raises for many state and countyofficials.

The bill, which passed by one vote on a 61-60 tally, would notonly increase the pay of sheriffs and judges and other localofficials, but also that of the lawmakers themselves. The bill hasbeen sent to the Senate for possible action in that chamber.

Support in the House was split among local legislators, withDistrict 53 Rep. Bobby Moak and District 91 Rep. Bob Evanssupporting the measure and District 92 Rep. Becky Currie opposed.Lawmakers indicated they cast their votes after evaluating localofficials’ needs and the state’s budget picture.

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“If the bill that was presented to us had excluded thelegislators, that would have been fine with me,” said Evans,D-Monticello. “But this bill was the only vehicle available to meto give pay raises to the people that I thought really deservedit.”

Evans said he had been contacted numerous times by the electedofficials in his district, seeking his support of a pay raise.

His response was that if a bill came through the he was”comfortable” with, he would support it. He noted that most of theoffices affected by the bill had not had a raise in 10 years.

Evans said he chose to vote to raise the pay of these officialsdespite any complaints he might receive. And for voting for a billthat raised pay – including his own – he has already heard therumblings.

“The politically expedient vote would have been no, particularlyin a year where we have a tight budget,” Evans said. “Is the issuea political hot potato? Yes. Will I take flak for voting for it? Ialready have.

“The way I look at it, it increases my pay, yes, but it alsoincreases the pay of all these people who have been talking to methe last four or five months that really needed it,” Evanscontinued.

Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, also believed it his duty to stick up forthe elected officials at the local level.

“Included in this bill was the whole of the judiciary, which Ithink is a woefully inadequate salary schedule that we have inplace right now,” Moak said. “It’s behind any of our sister statesand any federal model.”

Moak said that while some perceive the timing of the pay raisebill as poor, a “good” timing will never exist.

“A lot of folks say that now is not the time to do it, with thebudget in this position or that position,” he said. “Politically,there is never a good time for pay raise legislation.

“But, as far as I’m concerned, I was going to vote for thelegislation whether there was a raise for legislators or not,because of the other offices in the bill,” he continued. “And Istill plan to do that, however it comes back from the Senate.”

Despite the other offices included for raises, Evans also saidthat some of the legislators needed the raise as much as anyoneelse.

“It doesn’t affect me, but there are a lot of people who havebeen up there for 30 years and have been getting the same money,”Evans said. “The cost of gas and groceries has gone up forlegislators just like it has for everyone else.”

The measure, if approved, would raise lawmakers’ base pay from$10,000 a year to $15,000. Their out-of-session pay would rise from$1,500 a month to $2,500 a month.

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who shares the Medicaidcommittee with Evans, did not share his approval of the pay raisebill – even though she said it was a “hard choice.”

“I understand why some people might have voted for it – thelegislators work very hard,” she said. “A lot of people say it’s apart-time job, but there’s a lot of work to it. But when we’revoting to cut services and voting to tax people because the statedoesn’t have any money, it’s very difficult for me to vote a payraise.”

Currie said approving the bill “never crossed [her] mind,” eventhough she knows that many of the elected officials mentioned inthe bill are feeling the pinch.

“Everyone works hard and the cost of living is higher – Iunderstand asking for a pay raise,” she said. “But I am having adifficult time with this. The bill mainly had to do with theLegislature and the governor. The governor didn’t ask for a payraise, but they put it in there.”

While Evans and Currie disagreed over the pay raise bill, theyfound common ground on another issue in the Medicaid committee – acigarette tax.

In supporting the bill, Currie is one of only a handful ofRepublicans who plan to venture outside their party line and votein favor of the tax. It would add a dollar per pack and earmarksall tobacco taxes to health care.

“I’m kind of breaking ranks and going with the Democrats here,”Currie said.

Currie broke with her party’s age-old tradition of opposing anytax raise for the sake of the hospitals in her district. She saidher support of the cigarette tax was designed to counter a proposedhospital assessment, basically a tax on hospitals to attempt toclose the gap in the state’s health care budget.

“The hospitals in my district are each one of the biggestemployers in their cities,” Currie said. “If they have to laypeople off, then that’s an economic problem. Plus, we may have todecrease our health care services. The hospitals can’t absorb it.The only solution to this problem so far has come from theleadership in the House – a cigarette tax.”

Evans was all in favor of the bill that he said, if passed,should increase tax revenue on tobacco sales by $180 million peryear. Evans agreed with Currie that the tax was a more-favorablemethod of funding state health care than any hospital assessment,though Gov. Haley Barbour thinks otherwise.

“It’s my understanding that the governor does not support anytax increase,” Evans said. “But he let us know that he is in favorof a hospital assessment. He doesn’t favor tax increases, so heincreases fees. I think Daniel Webster would probably have sometrouble figuring out what the difference is.”

Evans pointed out the cigarette tax increase should have morepositive effects than just revenue, such as an extra incentive forsmokers to quit. No matter the incentive, Evans believes thetobacco tax increase is just – a way of making smokers pay fortheir own demise.

“Part of the state’s medical care bills as they exist now – $240million per year – is directly related to tobacco,” he said.