Budgeting, education and infrastructure were among the topics discussed by Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, when he spoke at the Starkville Rotary Club meeting Monday.
Gunn has served in the Legislature since 2004 and as Speaker since 2012. He is the first Republican to serve as Speaker in 136 years.
Gunn is a native of Clinton and represents District 56, which includes portions of Hinds and Madison counties. He holds a bachelor of business administration from Baylor University and a law degree from the University of Mississippi. Prior to his service in the legislature, Gunn served on the Clinton Public School Board.
Gunn said he believed the state to be in the best financial shape it had been in in a long time.
“One of the things we promised is that we’d live within our means,” Gunn said. “Well, what does that mean? That means we will not spend more money than we have to spend, and if we don’t spend the money in accordance with the budget, we get into financial trouble.”
Gunn said the state was in bad financial shape about seven or eight years ago, but had managed to improve its condition over the past few years.
”They were spending about $600 million more than what we had to spend,” Gunn said. “We have monies that we call recurring dollars. These would be comparable to your paycheck. You get a paycheck every two weeks, every month. That’s your recurring source of revenue. If you’re a good finance, money manager, you will pay your recurring bills with your recurring revenue.”
He said the state had begun paying its bills with non-renewable revenue, or its “savings account.”
“We need to stay within our means,” Gunn said. “We will not spend more money than we have. You need to do that in your household. You need to do that in your business, and we in state government need to do that same thing.”
He said the state initially thought it wound need six years to balance the budget, but was able to accomplish it in three years.
“During 2016, we had some tough, lean times, which forced us to make cuts,” Gunn said. “A lot of people railed and hollered about ‘oh we’re needing to cut the size of government.’ I bet many of you don’t even know that happened.”
He said one of the places the state cut at the time was eliminating positions that had been vacant for long periods of time from the state budget.
“If you haven’t put anybody in that position for four years, it really raises the question or not if you really need that spot,” Gunn said. “We had one agency that had a job opening that has existed for 23 years.”
He said the state’s general fund was close to $6 billion, with a $500 million rainy day fund capable of meeting the state’s budgetary needs if needed. He also said approximately 54% of every dollar the state took in went to education, including public schools, community colleges and universities.
He spoke to past pay raises, and said his goal was to get Mississippi teacher pay to the Southeastern average.
“I believe that we have done very well in the area of education, and budget over the past few years,” Gunn said. “Last year, we gave the highest amount of money in the history of the state to education.”
He also spoke to the importance of teachers to the state. He said a teacher eight years ago would have received a $500 step raise for the past amount of time, plus a $2,500 raise four years ago and the $1,500 raise approved in the past session. However, he also said a $1,000 pay raise for teachers added $75 million to the budget.
"Do we pay them what they’re worth, absolutely not,” Gunn said. “There’s no way we can ever pay teachers what they are worth. Teachers are invaluable. They are critical to the future of this state. They are critical to the education of our children.”
He said the legislature would continue looking for ways to do more for teachers.
“I’d love to get them up to the Southeastern average,” Gunn said. “That, to me is the first goal. We’re about $4,000 off from there.”