Mississippi Nearly Kills Teacher Pay Raises, Keeps Divorce Punitive
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The Republican controlled Mississippi House was willing to let teacher pay raises die another year, keeping Mississippi at the lowest pay level in both the Southeastern and national average.
The House and Senate produced two competing versions of a pay raise this legislative session, but House leaders were willing to jettison the raise entirely for the second year in a row in order to force senators to accept their own version. Last minute action from the Senate was the only thing saving the effort, with senators accepting the House version just as the March 1 deadline to pass general bills loomed.
This is not the first time Gunn’s House was willing to dump teacher pay raises to prove a point. Gunn let his House nearly kill a nearly $1,000 annual raise during the 2021 legislative session, again forcing the Senate to stand up and pass that bill.
Gunn justified his indifference, telling reporters he wanted either the House bill or nothing, simply because “our bill is better.” His argument that the House version offered a bigger, quicker raise apparently compared well to no raise at all.
Starting salaries for teachers in the state are currently $37,000. The House version would raise that amount up to between $4,000 and $6,000 a year, whereas the Senate bill raised starting pay $3,000 but with more increases every five years. The Southeastern average for beginning teacher’s pay is $39,754, while the national average is $41,163.
Speaker Gunn may be flexing his power in the run-up to a Senate/House battle over GOP leaders’ bid to wipe out one-third of the state’s budget revenue. The Lighthouse has been monitoring the leadership’s willingness to flush the state’s budget with two competing bills.
Both houses have also submitted competing plans to hollow out the state’s budget, with Senate Bill 3164 racing against House Bill 531 to deep six the state’s many underfunded mandates such as highways, schools, prisons and hospitals.
Gunn advocates for HB 531, which will target Mississippians making less than $19,000 a year and people on fixed incomes with a sales tax hike to fund a tax break for the state’s tiny population of wealthy individuals. Washington D.C.-based Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy told The Lighthouse that nearly half the tax cut will benefit people making more than $200,000, with people making more than $485,000 nabbing a full third of the benefits.
Legislators hope to elude retaliation for bankrupting the state by gutting the budget in small increments, phasing in cuts over the next few years, preferably after they’ve either moved on from their elected positions or voters forget who passed them. Some of the tax cuts in HB 531, for example, do not begin to kick in until the year 2028.
While barely keeping teacher pay raises alive, both houses also killed a divorce bill that would have allowed women to get out from under an abusive marriage with a no-fault divorce option, like other states. The Lighthouse had high hopes that Senate Bill 2643 would update Mississippi’s 1850’s-era divorce laws that make divorce difficult for impoverished women who are financially reliant upon an abusive spouse. Mississippi remains one of only two states without a true “no-fault divorce” law, so if one spouse does not want a divorce—because of bitterness, codependency, or outright malice—he can hold off the divorce and pile unaffordable court costs and lawyers’ fees onto his unwilling wife and her kids.
Spouses seeking freedom must currently prove one of 12 grounds for divorce and provide “clear and convincing evidence” to the court for the legal separation. This means proving to the court that your spouse indulges in things like bigamy, habitual drunkenness, adultery, or suffers impotency. All these reasons get expensive fast as pricey lawyers begin demanding and processing phone records and texts to prove the existence of infidelity and other issues.
A more frequently used option that many battered women identify with is the “habitual cruel and inhuman treatment” argument, but this means sending even more expensive lawyers through reams of hospital bills and injury reports to prove the existence of injury. And evidence is scant if the abusive spouse pointedly kept you away from doctors during all those beatings.
The 12 grounds for divorce exists in Mississippi because of the state’s Bible belt status and the strong religious right’s hold over our politicians, but Mississippi still ranks high among states in terms of its divorce rate, despite preachers’ finger-wagging.