Political hassle over teacher pay
May 27, 2001
There is a list of great lies that have been told to professional educators in Mississippi for far too many years, but the greatest of these is this Mississippi will raise teacher pay to the "Southeastern Average."
Mississippi will never, ever raise teacher pay to the mythical "Southeastern Average" and keep it at that level for any protracted period of time. Why? Because the "Southeastern Average" is a moving target much like the plastic duck in a carnival barker's rigged game. It's hard to knock it down with a straight shot and when you do, it pops right back up again.
The "Southeastern Average" for teacher pay the average of the compensation for teachers in Mississippi and surrounding states in the region is rarely a stable number, for whenever any state in the mix raises the pay for their teachers Mississippi's ranking goes down.
If Mississippi raises teacher pay, the other state's rankings go down. It's a never-ending cycle. Raising Mississippi teacher pay to the "Southeastern Average" is a political promise that has been made over and over for the last 20 years in both the executive and legislative branches of government and the promise has never been kept.
When Mississippi adopted the most recent teacher pay increase package in 2000, the promise was made again but was stymied by the 5 percent revenue growth trigger inserted into the law by the leadership in the State Senate under Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck's watch. Tuck and her forces made the fiscally-responsible pledge that the raises would be guaranteed only if the state met an annual five percent revenue growth target.
If not, the raises were in trouble.
As fate would have it, revenue growth has not been there.
After years of the Mississippi Legislature enjoying flush times and having plenty of money to indulge the whims of most every state agency, special interest group and lobbyist, state government over the last two years has fallen on hard times. Money is tight, revenue isn't coming in at the levels projected and the Legislature has a budget "hangover" from too many years of budgeting based on the rosiest of revenue projections and essentially "betting the come" in the budget process.
No one was a greater master of that legislative strategy than was then-Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. He structured his entire legislative strategy by that process while Kirk Fordice was governor. Fordice tried to force the Legislative to make spending reductions, but during his term the Musgrove-led Legislature continued to operate by "betting the come" on state revenue.
Now, as a governor who has sold his political soul to the teacher unions, Musgrove opposes the practice of the Mississippi Legislature operating on the rosy side of revenue projections because he wants lawmakers to take the heat for making state agencies cut their budgets rather than having to do it himself through the kind of budget cuts he was forced twice to make during the current fiscal year.
And in terms of the teacher pay raise issue, Musgrove wants lawmakers to "make education a priority" at a time when revenue is short, essential services are being cut and the state's financial future isn't looking nearly as bright as it was two years prior.
Do Mississippi teachers deserve to receive the 2000 pay raise package passed for them? Certainly. We're losing quality teachers across state lines for the very reason that pay here is poor and the state's commitment to changing that reality is suspect.
And the 5 percent revenue growth trigger is a political football in and of itself. Are there any other major components in state government that has their funding dependent on revenue growth percentages?
Teachers are tired of hearing lies. They should be. But Gov. Musgrove's rather pithy appeal "I have told our teachers I would continue to fight for removal of the 5 percent growth rate provision and make their raises permanent. And I will. I will continue to fight on behalf of education. I will continue to fight on behalf of our children. I will continue to fight on behalf of our teachers" sounds more like a re-election campaign television commercial than it does any sort of meaningful attempt to make policy with the help of the Legislature.
Teacher pay raises are a gut issue and few issues are more important in state government today. But lawmakers must also deal with the issues of prisons, economic development, state employee compensation and benefits, crime and so many other concerns. Money is tight for every aspect of state government.
The truth of the matter is that the Legislature deserves some of Musgrove's criticism for running this shell game on the teachers regarding their pay raises. But let's not forget that when Musgrove was in the Legislature, he operated under the very same set of political rules that he's now tossing verbal grenades at the salons for following.
Musgrove questions the "priorities" of the Legislature. But at the same time, Musgrove is working tooth and nail to avoid the process of establishing priorities by attempting to make the Legislature do the heavy-lifting in the budget process.
A governor truly interested in setting "priorities" wouldn't balk at having to make tough decision to cut the budget. Resisting that responsibility is a political statement, not one of policy.
Teacher pay raises should be made permanent. So should Musgrove's feeling about the Legislature operating from rosy revenue projections.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.