‘Sometimes we should be thankful,’ senator says

(Above) State Rep. Kabir Karriem, a Columbus Democrat, and Cheikh Taylor, a Starkville Democrat, talk after the luncheon.
Staff Writer

While some state residents continue to debate whether a $1,500 pay raise approved by the Legislature for teachers was enough, some points about teacher salaries sometimes are forgotten, a state senator said Friday.

Meanwhile the internal debate between the House and Senate remains, area legislators indicated in their responses to questions during a legislative luncheon hosted by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce.

In answering a question from the audience about why the state ranks last in “many categories,” state Sen. Chuck Younger, a Republican represents parts of Lowndes and Monroe counties, said the state’s poor roots, particularly in the Delta, were partially to blame.

At the same time, it doesn’t take as much to live here,” Younger noted, tossing in his support for a fuel tax increase to continue to fund infrastructure improvements because “the only fair way to get revenues is the use tax.”

He transitioned into the teacher pay raise.

“If they got a $1,500 raise, a lot of people would say thank you. When we talk about the pay raise, what’s often not mentioned is the state’s pay scale for teachers. After three years experience, an ‘A’ level teacher gets a $495 raise every year and when they get to a ‘AA’ level, it goes up to $650 a year. Those are built in, but that’s never talked about,” Younger explained.

“We should all be thankful for what we get sometimes…I love this state, we’ll try to do better,” he concluded.

In addition to Younger, the luncheon featured Sen. Angela Turner Ford, and state Reps. Jeff Smith, Kabir Karriem, Cheikh Taylor, Gary Chism and Carl Mickens.

As Younger finished, Taylor chimed in.

“Education has to be a priority, if we would educate our children, we would come down in some of those rankings,” he said.

Taylor, who is in his first year in the Legislature, was critical of those who have opposed expanding Medicaid to get additional federal funding for health care and rural public hospitals that are struggling financially. That contributes to the state’s low ranking in health-related categories.

“We are giving away $1 billion a year, that’s $10 billion we could have had by now. We are encouraging our state-funded hospitals to move across the border, we are encouraging our people to go to other states…we are further eroding our medical system,” he said, not mentioning Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phil Gunn by name but referencing their opposition to the Medicaid expansion that was part of Obamacare.

Not taking the additional money has made the drain on other resources that much worse, he suggested.

“Sometimes we make big missteps at the Capitol that encourage us to stay behind,” Taylor stated.

Many of the questions from the audience focused on the infrastructure measures approved during a special session last August and how that directed online sales tax revenues to help local governments with road, bridge and drainage budgets.

But even with that effort, Ford noted the Legislature’s efforts to this point “are not adequate.”

“We are going to have to be more innovative with ways to get more revenue to fund all of our needs,” Ford said.

When asked about the state’s continued loss of many of its young people to other states, Chism said, “We just have to continue to create the kinds of jobs that can change people’s lives.”

That prompted Karriem to take a jab at the Senate, where many House members say good pieces of legislation go to die.

“We passed a bill to give people a $5,000 tax credit to stay in the state. It died in the Senate. We passed a bill to give companies incentives for hiring former felons to help turn their lives around. It died in the Senate. There are some good efforts happening in the Legislature that die in that other chamber,” Karriem lamented.

One attendee asked if the one of the “poorest states in the country” could continue to give 3 percent increases each year in retirement benefits. The question gave Smith a chance to try to add a little clarity to the PERS system that sometimes is criticized, especially since it is under-funded and lawmakers have had to increase contributions, taxing local governments.

“The problem is the raises aren’t limited to 3 percent. Sometimes they are 3.5 percent or 3.75 percent. Experts tell me if we could limit them to 3 percent, the system would be solvent. But when you have checks going to 419,000 retirees, an extra half percent adds up. We can continue 3 percent, we just can’t continue to pay more than 3 percent,” said Smith, a Columbus Republican who is chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee.