Lawmakers claim politics in teacher pay raise ploy

Published 5:00 am Monday, March 17, 2008

It was back to the trenches last week for area representativeswhen a Senate bill proposing teacher pay raises came to the floorfor debate.

The action of an otherwise slow legislative week in the Housebegan when Senate Bill 2176, which outlines a 3 percent teacher payraise and a $500 per year raise for teaching assistants, wasamended to include 5 percent teacher pay raises. Following a seriesof legislative maneuvering, the bill including 3 percent raisespassed the House and will await conference action with theSenate.

Some House members, such as District 91 Rep. Bob Evans,D-Monticello, claimed the percentage adjusting was simply a way tosave face for a select few representatives who voted against theHouse’s original education bill in early February, House Bill 513,which included the same 3 percent pay raise.

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“It was no doubt just a political move,” Evans said. “The bunchof House members who voted against the 3 percent raise the firsttime because it was ‘financially irresponsible’ are the same oneswho came up with the 5 percent raise this time.

“We’re back to where we started, so I guess it all came out inthe wash.”

Evans said those who supported the 5 percent teacher pay raiseknew they were safe in doing so, because legislators from bothsides of the argument were aware that the state could not affordthe increase, and the amended bill was destined to fail.

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, viewed the journeyof Senate Bill 2176 in the same light.

“You gotta figure out where this thing started,” he said. “InFebruary, you had a lot of folks vote ‘no’ on the educationlegislation because it was not the governor’s position. They gotthemselves in a political bind. The battle over 3 percent and 5percent is more a political battle than a battle on the issue.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who opposed theHouse education bill and its 3 percent raise in February butsupported the 5 percent raise last week, offered a different takeon last week’s activities. She said the action that played out overSenate Bill 2176 was a method of clearing out the legislation inorder to produce a budget-friendly bill.

“What it amounts to is that we kept sending all our crap to theSenate for them to kill because we were busy fighting amongst eachother,” Currie said. “I voted no on the original bill in Februarybecause it added $60 million I knew we didn’t have. Now, here weare back with what everybody knew we could afford to startwith.”

Currie agreed with Evans on one observation – those whosupported the 5 percent raise knew it never had a chance.

“We knew that we were going to end up with the original bill,”she said. “The 5 percent raise would have been fine with me had wehave had the money for it, but we just needed to get back to theplain old original bill – without amendments – that we knew wecould afford in our budget.”

Currie said she was pleased with the way the Senate presentedthe bill, which dealt with only the teacher pay raises – unlikeHouse Bill 513 in February that was all-encompassing toeducation.

“This bill doesn’t have everything in it like the House bill -they’re doing it section-by-section, which is a prudent way to doit,” she said. “They threw that House bill out at the beginning ofthe session, and you never spend three quarters of your budget atthe beginning of the session.

“Now, we’ve ended up with the original bill, and it fits intothe budget,” she continued. “It was a lot of work to get back tothe original bill.”

Evans disagreed wholeheartedly, however, pointing out thatSenate Bill 2176 had no over-budgeted amendments to remove. He saidthe bill was introduced to the House as simply a 3 percent payraise bill, and it eventually left the House with the samestructure.

“It was just a lesson in politics,” he said. “And we’repolitical animals.”

On less divisive matters, Evans and Currie speculated about theHouse’s upcoming business this week.

Only one month remains in the first legislative session of 2008,and several major issues have yet to be decided. One is theproposed $1 per pack tax increase on cigarettes.

Evans is warily anticipating that the cigarette tax bill will bedefeated in the Senate and replaced with an increased gross revenuetax on hospitals.

“Many legislators I’ve talked to will not vote to raise grossrevenue taxes on hospitals, period – including myself,” he said.”If they come back to the House with that, we’re gonna have to findsomething else, because I’m not going to vote for it, and I don’tthink the majority of the House will either.”

Evans also mentioned that a Senate bill dealing with voterregistration has not yet arrived in the House.

“There’s still some contested issues out there,” Evans said.

Currie voiced her support of the House’s recent passage of abill that would establish a sales tax-free weekend in Mississippiin early August, similar to laws already in effect in Alabama andLouisiana.

“I liked the idea because we would do it right before schoolstarts back,” she said. “It’s a great idea, because any help to buyschool supplies one weekend a year may help a tremendous amount ofpeople. It passed out of the House, and I would love to see it passthe Senate and be signed by the governor.”