Bryant pushes teacher pay, school safety in State of State

Gov. Phil Bryant says he'll support efforts to reduce the number of Mississippians in prison in the 2019 legislative session during a discussion on criminal justice reform, at the Mississippi Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. The meeting was put on by a coalition of groups that favor changes to reduce harshness in the criminal justice system. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant used his final State of the State speech Tuesday to look back on his two terms and to offer proposals for his final year in office.

Bryant, a Republican, asked lawmakers to enact a teacher pay raise and to approve a school safety program. He mentioned concerns about active shooters in U.S. schools, but did not offer specific details about how he would like to prevent or respond to such situations.

“Our schools, which once were a haven of security, have become a place of potential violence,” Bryant said. “To help protect our students and those who teach them, I will ask you to pass a comprehensive plan to keep our school children safe. The recommendations come from a yearlong study for effective results.”

Bryant cited a litany of statistics about the Mississippi economy, saying the state had a 9.4 percent unemployment rate when he became governor in January 2012. He said the state now has record low unemployment, at 4.7 percent, and Mississippi’s median household income has increased 8.4 percent since 2011.

“And just in case you’re not tired of winning yet, we have 80,000 more Mississippians working today than the day I took office,” he told lawmakers during the speech in the state Capitol.

He asked lawmakers to put more money into the foster care system, which has been under federal court scrutiny for years. He also asked them to approve programs designed to reduce the rate of people who return to prison after serving time.

“If President Donald J. Trump can pass nationwide criminal justice reform through a gridlocked and hyper-partisan congress, surely we can do so right here in Mississippi,” said Bryant, a Trump supporter.

Bryant is limited to two terms and cannot seek re-election this year. He began his political career in 1991, when he won a state House seat. He was appointed in 1996 and served in that office until winning the lieutenant governor’s race in 2007. He was elected governor in 2011.

“I started as a young man, and I will finish as a grandfather,” Bryant said. “Over these many years I have seen Mississippi make incredible progress. It may not have always been perfect, but the march of improvement and advancement in our people’s lives over the last 30 years is undeniable. None of us can accept credit for all of it, but we can all claim the honor of toiling and striving to make our home a better place.”

Most lawmakers are either running for re-election or seeking another state office this year. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is running for governor, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, who is seeking another term in the House and in his leadership post, have both said they favor some sort of pay raises for teachers and state employees. Reeves and Gunn have not made detailed proposals, though. The decisions could be made in late March or early April, when lawmakers are putting final touches on the budget for the year that begins July 1.

Bryant has recommended that the state spend $50 million, split over two years, to provide pay raises for teachers. He first made the suggestion two months ago as part of his state budget proposal for the year that begins July 1.

The Mississippi Department of Education said that amount of money would increase teacher salaries by just under 3 percent.

Mississippi had 31,658 teachers during the 2016-17 academic year. Their average salary was $44,659, which includes state money and local supplements. Bryant’s proposal would translate into an increase of about $790 per teacher, before taxes, in each of the next two years.

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