December 1, 2020

Lawmakers’ decisions affect Mississippi workers’ pocketbooks

Pocketbook issues were an important part of the 2019 Mississippi legislative session.

Senators and representatives approved pay raises for teachers and state employees.

They voted to expand the availability of home-based health services to help some people stay with their own families and avoid living in nursing homes or state mental hospitals.

They gave more money to the Department of Public Safety so it can hire some workers to relieve long lines at driver’s license stations. It was less money than the department requested, but budget writers said they wanted to do something to address the aggravating problem.

Legislators also approved a pay raise plan for county employees, including supervisors and tax assessors and collectors. That plan, though, comes with a provision that will dig into the pocketbooks of people who use the court system: The fees for filing documents will increase, in some cases from $25 to $85 and in other cases from $75 to $85.

This is an election year, and most legislators are either seeking re-election or running for higher office. Teachers and state employees tend to vote in big numbers, so it’s important for politicians to pay attention to them. Nothing shows that attention quite like a pay raise.

State agency employees are in line to receive a 3 percent pay raise with what lawmakers called a three-year “look back.” That means if an employee received a 1 percent raise in the past three years, she would get no more than an additional 2 percent.
University employees are supposed to get raises of up to 2 percent.

Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are in line for a $1,500 raise that will take effect in the year that begins July 1. The Senate initially backed a plan to give two $500 raises — one in the coming year and one the following year. The House countered with a significantly larger proposal of $2,000 in the coming year and another $2,000 the next year.

The more generous House plan never had a realistic chance of becoming the final product, given that lawmakers work within a mandate to write a balanced budget and they wanted to spend money on raises for other state employees. Negotiators reached the compromise of $1,500 last week during the closing days of the nearly three-month session.

Charleen Sproles, who is a counselor at Northwest Rankin High School outside Brandon, said the initial proposal was too low, given the expectations and responsibilities placed on educators.

“You are raising a generation of citizens,” said Sproles, who has been an educator for 27 years.

Sproles said her first job in education paid about $18,000 a year and offered no health insurance. Since then, she has earned a master’s degree, an education specialist degree, and national board certification. Her pay has increased with her years of experience and increase in credentials, and she said she has good health insurance coverage.

Sproles said she’s happy in her workplace but many Mississippi school districts can’t afford the kind of local financial support that Rankin County provides for its schools. It’s a relatively affluent suburb of Jackson, and it has enjoyed growth and a solid tax base the past three decades.
“Rankin County is the best you can get,” Sproles said.

She describes her job in education as “a calling” and “an absolute privilege.” Still, she thinks every legislator should spend at least a day working in a classroom.

“They need to come and experience what it’s like to mold children’s lives,” Sproles said.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.