Arkansas Democrats seek help from Republicans in fight for teacher raises

Democrats in the Arkansas Legislature launched a triumphant assault on Wednesday, tabling bills to raise teachers’ salaries, give tax credits to middle and low incomes and ease draconian abortion restrictions enough to allow women to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or when the fetus is certain not to survive.

The special session that began Tuesday is expected to go beyond giving tax cuts to benefit the state’s wealthiest residents, a lineup of legislative Democrats said at a press conference Wednesday after- midday.

“We’re not hearing from the highest earners in the state saying they urgently need even more tax cuts,” the House Minority Leader said. Tippi McCullough of Little Rock said. Instead, the emails and phone calls are from ordinary people seeking higher pay for educators and a fairer tax relief package, she said. She tabled a resolution today to extend the special session for 15 days to give lawmakers a chance to tackle these issues.

“We have the money. We have the plan. We definitely need it. But we don’t have the votes. It’s a huge missed opportunity to refuse to raise teacher and support staff salaries this term with this surplus,” said Rep. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianne).

Governor Hutchinson was the first to come up with a solid plan for teacher raises earlier this year, proposing a plan to offer starting salaries of $46,000, which is even higher than the $42,000 figure that Democrats ( and at least five Republicans) are now claiming. But when the majority of Legislative Republicans opposed teacher increases and wanted to consider only tax cuts and a $50 million allocation for school safety, Hutchinson acquiesced.

Because the governor let the teacher pay for the call for this week’s special session, a 2/3 vote is required for lawmakers to accept it. The work to get those votes will be worth it for a chance of convincing one in four Arkansas teachers planning to leave the classroom to stay. Arkansas’ teacher starting salary ranks 48th in the nation and average teacher salary ranks 46th.

“Increasing teacher salaries is one of the best ways to show our appreciation, improve recruitment and retention, and compete with higher salaries in surrounding states,” Representative Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) said.

Five House Republicans – Jimmy Gazaway of Paragould, David Tollet from marvel, Richard Womack of Arkadelphia, Harlan Breaux of Holiday Island and Gary Defenbaugh de Van Buren — signed on as co-sponsors of the RAISE Act, which would use $600 million of the state’s more than $1.6 billion surplus to raise the salaries of educators. All teachers would receive a $4,000 raise under the plan.

Godfrey thanked the Republicans who co-sponsored the RAISE Act and invited other Republicans to sign on as well.

One of the Republican co-sponsors said his support on the issue was nothing new. Gazaway said he has been determined to increase teachers’ salaries since the governor presented his proposal in June. Gazaway said he supports setting the starting salary at $46,000, up from the current minimum of $36,000. Gazaway said he stayed on board when some of his fellow lawmakers balked at the award, so the governor lowered his proposed starting salary to $42,000.

Gazaway offered three reasons to support the RAISE Act.

“My reasoning was, one, do teachers need a pay rise? there is no doubt. It cannot be legitimately challenged, in my opinion. We have some of the lowest salaries in the area. We’re behind Mississippi now,” he said.

“Secondly, is the situation likely to improve if we do nothing? The answer is no. It’s not a problem that will go away or get better if we ignore it. And third, is there a better time to fix this problem than now, when we have a $1.6 billion surplus? My answer to that is probably no.

Senator Clarke Tucker of Little Rock praised school support staff and said he would also see a pay rise if the new bills were passed. Tucker chose a support staff member considered by his principal to be the most important person in the school. Although he worked more than full time as the head caretaker and looked after the well-being of students in and out of school, this staff member earned less than $30,000 and was eligible for SNAP benefits, Tucker said. “That’s no way to take care of the people who take care of our children.”

Now is the time to push through those increases, Tucker said. Otherwise, we face the coming school year with no new incentives to offer our educators.

In addition to pay raises for educators, Democrats have another tax relief plan they want to bring to this special session for consideration.

Representative Andrew Collins (D-Little Rock) is one of the sponsors of a bill to provide relief to middle and working class families in the form of $300 tax credits, twice the amount of the tax credit granted to non-wealthy people under the Republican plan. Leave tax rates for our highest earners alone, Collins suggested. “Another tax break for the rich won’t make us a leader in education,” he said.

Democrats are also proposing an amendment to Arkansas’ abortion ban, which went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade who had protected access to abortion for 50 years. The amendment would change Arkansas law to allow abortion to not only save the life of the mother, but also to save the health of the mother.

Governor Hutchinson issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying he did not support passing salary increases for teachers now.

“The Democratic Caucus today announced the plan to win support for teacher pay increases. I appreciate the plea for teacher salary increases, but the plan presented is not the best plan and it is not achievable in this special session. I am confident that the General Assembly Appropriation Committee will come up with a solid plan for increasing teacher salaries which can be considered in January.

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