House offers ‘compromise’ teacher pay raise, but Senate says it wasn’t in on the compromising

Published 10:21 am Friday, March 11, 2022

The House has offered a “compromise” $226 million teacher pay raise to the state Senate.

But Senate leaders said Thursday they weren’t in on any of the compromising, haven’t met with House leaders beyond casual conversation and haven’t vetted the House proposal. They were perplexed why House Speaker Philip Gunn held a press conference Thursday to announce the House offering instead of having House conferees, or negotiators, meet with Senate conferees first.

The new House offer would be a $226 million deal that would raise starting teacher pay to an average of $41,638, higher than both the southeastern starting average of $39,754 and the national average of $41,163. The offer by House leaders provides an average raise higher than either the House or Senate’s original proposals.

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Many political observers suspect the House move on Thursday without working with the Senate is tied to the ongoing standoff between the House and Senate over dueling income tax cut proposals. Gunn has recently said he’s prepared to hold up other legislation if the Senate doesn’t agree to his proposal to eliminate the personal income tax and raise sales taxes. The standoff portends lawmakers ending their session without deals on major issues and having to come back in special session over the summer for more haggling.

But on Thursday Gunn said the House is willing to pass a teacher raise regardless of a tax cut agreement. But his comments left doubt whether the House is willing to entertain any Senate input on teacher pay.

“I am proud to stand here before you and announce the House position on our teacher pay plan,” Gunn said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “… We believe this is a strong statement on our commitment, and a win for teachers and a win for students.”

Gunn said the House move is not take-it-or-leave-it and, “If they’ve got ways they think they can improve it, they can let us know.” But he also said, “We don’t see how there can be improvement,” and said he sees no reason the Senate shouldn’t just pass the House offering and send it on to the governor.

But a teacher raise was also a Senate priority — with senators working over the summer to draft a plan — and Senate leaders are still smarting over the House killing the Senate teacher pay bill without a vote for a second year in a row. The initial House and Senate plans were similar, both over $200 million, and either would have been the largest Mississippi teacher pay raise in recent history. Some conflict between the chambers on a teacher raise appears to be centered on pride of authorship, and differences over other issues such as tax cuts.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, issued only a brief statement late Thursday: “We look forward to meeting with the House and finalizing a historic teacher pay raise.”

While the new House offering appears to still be most similar to the House’s original plan, it does provide yearly “step” increases in pay and larger bumps every five years similar to the Senate proposal.

Typically, for major bills in conference, three negotiators from each chamber would meet to work out details and compromise, although sometimes for expediency on lesser issues or for negotiations later in the process the two chambers will send over signed conference reports.

“No,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, a Democrat from Amory and one of the Senate teacher pay negotiators, when asked if there had been a conference meeting. “Why on earth would you call a press conference and go through all of this when there’s not been any meeting? The common sense of it is, when you’ve got an idea, and I’ve got an idea, you meet somewhere and see what you can work out.”

The new House proposal would provide a raise to all Mississippi teachers for the 2022-2023 school year, $4,850 on average, with 92% of all teachers seeing a raise of at least $4,000, House leaders said.

The measure would provide yearly step increases in pay of at least $400 a year, with larger increases of at least $1,000 every fifth year and a $2,500 raise for all teachers in their 25th year.

The bill would also provide a $2,000 raise for assistant teachers. And it would correct a legislative drafting error so nurses, counselors and other specialists who did not receive their national board certification supplements in the 2021-2022 year would receive them retroactively — a one-time payment of around $6,000 for most of these educators.

On March 1, the House killed the Senate pay raise proposal without a vote. The Senate reluctantly passed the House bill — after amending it to the Senate version — to keep a teacher raise alive. With Gunn threatening to hold up other legislation as leverage on his proposal to eliminate the income tax and raise sales taxes, Senate leaders and education advocates have feared the pay raise might die in the tax standoff, and criticized the House as using brinksmanship with teacher pay. But it appears both chambers are prepared to pass a teacher pay raise.

The original House plan would have increased starting teacher pay from $37,000 a year to $43,125. The Senate plan would have increased starting pay to $40,000, but also provided increases of $1,325 to $1,624 at five-year intervals as teachers gain more experience.

The original House plan would have been enacted in one year while the Senate proposal would be phased in over two years. The Senate’s plan included a year-two, $44 million across-the-board increase of $1,000 per teacher. Including the teacher assistants, the Senate plan would have cost about $230 million over two years compared to $220 million in one year for the initial House proposal.

House leaders, including Gunn criticized the Senate plan being spread over two years, saying this appeared to be a political calculation to provide part of the raise during an election year next year.

Hosemann, Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves have all promised “significant” teacher raises. Reeves proposed a smaller, $3,300 increase over two years.

House Education Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, praised the House’s latest plan.

“We’re proud of this, and I believe holding out, going to conference on this, we will end up getting more money for teachers, and definitely more in the first year,” Bennett said.

Bennett also praised the work of Reps. Kent McCarty, Jansen Owen and Kevin Felsher, whom he said helped work on a pay raise plan for more than a year.

“Our goal with our bill was to target the problem we have with recruiting and retaining teachers, and this compromise does a good job, is a good step towards doing that,” Owen said.

Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, in a statement on Thursday said: “The conference committee has not met because of critical floor deadlines. The Senate conferees will take a look at the House report and run the numbers. We hope to be able to meet and finalize an agreement soon. As always I would just like to thank teachers for the hard work they are doing for our kids every day.”

By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today