Tennessee teachers pressure Gov. Haslam to provide 6 percent raises

Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog
photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks to supporters in Nashville after being re-elected Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.

NASHVILLE -- The state's largest teachers' union on Tuesday called on Gov. Bill Haslam to provide educators with a 6 percent pay increase next year to start carrying out his pledge to make Tennessee the "fastest improving state" in the nation on teacher pay.

Carolyn Crowder, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, said in a statement that teachers "are eagerly anticipating" Haslam's budget hearing on Friday with Education Department officials "to see if he will start living up to that promise."

Haslam's original fiscal year 2014-2015 budget, unveiled last winter, provided teachers a 2 percent increase. But the governor was forced to renege after tax collections fell $300 million below projections.

This year the governor has asked state agencies to outline plans to cut up to 7 percent from their 2015-2016 budgets, a figure he has called a worst-case scenario but one he says allows him to cut here and there to present a balanced budget to lawmakers in early 2015.

Last week and into this week, Haslam has been holding public budget hearings where departments outline potential cuts.

"Well obviously, as you know, last year one of my priorities was to fund a pay increase for teachers," Haslam told reporters after Tuesday's round of department presentations. "We'd like to do that. We're asking more of them than ever. They're producing better results than ever.

"But again," Haslam cautioned, we're restricted by budget funds what we can do. It's too early to say this year what we'll have funds to do. But I don't think it's any secret that funding a pay increase for teachers is one of my priorities."

He added that "obviously, we'll have to wait and see and it'll depend on the revenues."

Revenues are running about $91 million above projected estimates in the current budget year.

The TEA says teacher salaries have remained flat since 2011, Haslam's first year in office, when compared with the Consumer Price Index. Factoring in rising insurance premiums, Crowder said, some teachers' salaries "are worth less now than they were when Haslam took office."

Calling a raise "desperately needed," Crowder said the TEA wants ultimately to boost teacher pay from $40,000 to $45,000. That would be a net increase to the average teacher's salary of 11.3 percent. While teachers aren't asking "for this to happen all at once," Crowder said, "we are asking for the governor to get serious."

Their proposal would mean a 6 percent increase in pay next year with the reset phased in over two to three years.

Earlier Tuesday, Haslam heard budget presentations from various departments, including the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons laid out a scenario he fretted would threaten road safety with 73 fewer troopers. Wait times at the state's driver's license services centers, meanwhile, could grow if the department is forced to cut 30 part-time positions under 7 percent cuts amounting to $9 million, he said.

Gibbons said the state has been making substantial improvements in road safety and wait times. Use of sophisticated statistical analysis has allowed troopers to hit expected trouble spots, he noted.

Haslam later said if 7 percent cuts are necessary, "we would feel that in some real ways. A lot of it depends on the revenue situation, which we'll know more about in the next couple of months."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.