The Mississippi House of Representatives took two crucial this week. Both votes were taken within 24 hours of the bills being introduced and quickly rushed through committee Tuesday evening.
The Mississippi Tax Freedom Act of 2022 (294 pages long) was the first bill up for a vote and passed with 97 yes votes (primarily Republicans) and 25 representatives voting no, present, or absent. This bill is a marketed improvement from the bill introduced last year and does utilize an economic growth formula to reduce the state’s personal income tax in the long term, but still has issues that should be worked out before the final passage, including a sales tax increase from the now 7 percent general sales tax to 8.5 percent sales tax. The Mississippi Freedom Caucus (MFC) members supported this bill with a unanimous decision among its members, in order to keep the bill alive so that amendments and changes can be made along the way to continue to strengthen the bill and provide a pay raise for all Mississippians through a reduction in the overall tax burden of the state.
The Strategically Accelerating the Recruitment and Retention of Teachers (START) Act of 2022 (18 pages long) was the second bill up for a vote and passed with 114 yes votes which included yes votes from all Democrat representatives and no votes only coming from all five MFC members and one other Republican representative. This bill requires an increase in the state’s tax burden in the amount of approximately $258 million for meritless teacher pay raises (including additional retirement benefits), accounting for roughly $4,000 – $6,000 in additional salary benefits for all certified K-12 teachers in the Mississippi public school system. This pay increase makes Mississippi have the highest teacher pay in the southeast when Mississippi was already 4th out of the nine southern states as compared to median household income. Prior to this bill, teachers in Mississippi were already making 8.6% higher than the average Mississippi worker. This pay increase comes at a time when our law enforcement officers across the state are leaving their jobs due to low pay, often making less than $30,000 per year, and corrections officers oven making as little as $18/hour.
With the income tax elimination bill being passed just moments before the teacher pay raise bill, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a 1.5 percent increase in general sales tax, that will negatively affect all Mississippians. If the corresponding $258 million annually recurring teacher pay raise was utilized in a more financially responsible way, the sales tax increase required to eliminate the state individual income tax could have been 0.5 percent lower, thereby only requiring a one (1) percent general sales tax increase. Utilizing the funds in this manner, would be a more fiscally sound policy that would provide all Mississippians with a raise. There are approximately 33,000 public school teachers in the state of Mississippi, accounting for 1 percent of all Mississippians. Therefore, the tax burden of $258 million from this bill falls on the shoulders of all Mississippians in the form of 0.5 percent general sales tax increase to benefit only one (1) percent of Mississippians, whereas a corresponding reduction in personal income tax would benefit 100 percent of working Mississippians.
During a brief debate, MFC member Rep. Brady Williamson asked, “Are these pay increases tied to performance in the classroom?” for which the Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennet indicated that all teachers would receive the raise, remarking “Even the worst of them.” Rep. Williamson also asked regarding the local school district supplement, “May, possibly, [a local school district] change what they pay in their supplement?” for which Chairman Bennet replied, “They can increase it, but they can’t decrease it.” Based on the Chairman’s response the state, through this bill, now seeks to control a school district’s supplement pay amount for teachers preventing them from lowering the supplement during any times of economic downturn. Local school districts should be very concerned about the bill increasing state control over local school districts.
MFC Chairman Steve Hopkins released a statement on Facebook prior to the votes saying, “I have a passion for teachers, my wife is a teacher, both of my daughters and my daughter in-law. My sister Tracy was a teacher and my sister Cindy was a teacher’s assistant… I could be selfish and do what’s best for my household and vote for a $4,000 raise or I could vote no and stand strong for all Mississippians… I want an income tax elimination, grocery tax cut and car tag cut that gives all Mississippians thousands of dollars of extra income.”
The Mississippi Center for Public Policy, the state’s preeminent conservative think tank, ranked the teacher’s pay bill as a bill that erodes liberty with the statement, “After all costs are calculated, this is an extra $258 million dollars in new spending. After careful consideration, we have marked this as a bad bill.”
The Mississippi Legislature has been presented with a unique opportunity at a time with the state coffers larger than they have ever been in history, to use sound fiscal policies to lower the tax burden of all Mississippi workers through individual income tax elimination, without simply raising taxes in another manner. The Legislature will not be able to make historic tax cuts that will benefit all Mississippians if the politicians in Jackson continue to increase the size and scope of our state’s tax burden, with all Mississippians being on the hook. Putting more money in the pockets of all Mississippians through tax cuts will grow the economy and present sound fiscal opportunities to give teachers adequate merit-based salary increases.