Teacher Pay Raise Is Passed

The Mississippi Senate gave final approval Monday to legislation repealing a law that placed conditions on teacher pay raises. The Senate acted after the House took less than 20 minutes to approve the bill. It now goes to Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who is expected to act quickly to sign it into law.

``I am proud of Mississippi today,'' Musgrove told a news conference following the Senate vote. ``We just made history by making good on the promise to our teachers,'' said Musgrove, who was surrounded by educators. ``We have just helped shape our future.'' ``I think what this does is it says this is our No. 1 priority,'' Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Harden, D-Jackson, said in arguing for passage. During the Senate debate, Harden was pressed about how the state could finance the pay package. ``We're just going to have to be creative in finding the funds and make it a priority,'' she said. The Senate vote was 45-3 in favor of the bill, while the house passed it 112-3. House members voting against it were Reps. Andrew Ketchings, R-Natchez; John Moore, R-Brandon; and Charlie Smith, I-Eupora.

During the brief debate, Ketchings raised questions about whether the state could afford to pass the $330 million, five-year pay raise. House Education Committee Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, responded, ``I don't think we cannot afford not to.'' Lawmakers also passed a separate bill allocating $48,067 to pay for the special session. Before the session, about 25 members of the Mississippi Association of Teachers rallied outside the Capitol in support of the session agenda. Another two dozen Mississippi American Federation of Teacher members walked the Capitol halls. Canton High School biology teacher Tanya Mason, a member of the MAE, said she knows teachers who have switched to other professions because they can't make enough money in the classroom. She said she has considered such a move. ``I enjoy the kids. I know it's my calling,'' said Mason, 29. ``But, financially, it can't bring me the things I want out of life.'' Rep. Sarah Richardson Thomas, who spent 32 years as a teacher and school administrator, was among the lawmakers who supported removing the restrictions. ``Teaching is a 24-hour-a-day job,'' said Thomas, D-Indianola, who retired from Sunflower County public schools in 1995.

Musgrove had called legislators to Jackson to kill the law that says teachers will be guaranteed raises only if Mississippi's budget grows at least 5 percent a year. If growth is below 5 percent, legislators must take a separate vote to grant the raises. Musgrove and some teachers say the provision shows a lack of commitment to raising Mississippi salaries to the projected Southeastern average. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck engineered the 5 percent provision during the 2000 legislative session, when the $330 million, multiyear teacher pay raise plan was in danger of dying. She touted it as fiscally responsible, and the provision made the pay package more palatable to conservative lawmakers. Tuck reversed her position early this month, saying she wanted to take the growth provision out of the teacher pay plan. Despite slower-than-expected growth in the state budget year that ended June 30, Tuck said she believes Mississippi's economy will perk up. Her reversal came days after Speaker Tim Ford sent a letter to House members telling them he favored lifting the growth provision. ``A vote for this just might mean a tax increase down the road.'' Rumors circulated at the Capitol last week that Musgrove might push a casino tax increase to cover the teacher pay plan. Musgrove said that's not true.