Pay raise for state employees an issue in Missouri Senate budget stalemate

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 | 6:29 p.m. CDT; updated 6:56 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 24, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri state employees rank as the lowest paid in the nation, yet a proposal to give them a raise of a few hundred dollars a year has become a sticking point in a Senate stalemate over the state's $24 billion budget plan.

A coalition of nine fiscally conservative Republican senators stalled debate for a second day Tuesday on the proposed budget, set to take effect July 1, by pushing for additional spending cuts while decrying a reliance on one-time funding sources to plug holes.

Among the points of contention is whether thousands of state workers should receive a raise while some of the government functions they carry out are cut.

Under the plan approved earlier this month by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the budget would provide a 2 percent raise for employees earning up to $45,000 annually. That would cost nearly $33 million, with almost $17 million coming from general state tax revenues and the rest from federal funds or earmarked state revenue streams.

The cost of the pay raise exceeds the amount slated to be cut from a state program that provides health care to blind residents. Cuts to the program were not a direct result of the proposed pay raise, but the comparison was enough to make some senators squeamish about the public perception — particularly in an election year.

"I do have some heartburn about cutting blind health care benefits and giving state employees a pay raise," said Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, one of the nine senators balking at the proposed budget.

Few deny, however, that Missouri workers deserve a raise.

According to 2010 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri ranked last among all states with an average yearly salary of $36,985 for its state employees, excluding those who work at public colleges and universities. Missouri employees have not received a general pay increase since 2009.

When their flat salaries are combined with rising health care costs, many state workers are taking home less money now than they did five years ago, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, a proponent of the proposed pay hike.

"Remember, these are the men and women that are working at the Department of Corrections making sure that the bad guys stay on the right side of the wire to protect you and your family," Schaefer said. "I think they deserve to be recognized for that and have something commensurate to what they're doing."

The pay raise also would apply to numerous other types of state workers, including aides in mental health facilities and case workers in the Department of Social Services.

Gov. Jay Nixon originally proposed a 2 percent raise for all state employees, regardless of their income, but it would not have kicked in until Jan. 1, 2013, which is halfway through the next fiscal year. As passed by the House last month, the proposed budget would have provided a 2 percent pay raise — to begin July 1 — for workers earning up to $70,000 annually, but that was scaled back by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Now, some senators want to eliminate the raise entirely.

Although disagreement remains over the pay raise, the dissident Republican senators appear to have been successful in forcing several changes to the budget during behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Schaefer and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, both said Tuesday that they had agreed to remove from the budget $50 million of federal funds that would have helped update the computer system Missouri uses for its Medicaid health care program. Some Republicans are concerned that the computer improvements would lay the framework for the eventual implementation of a health insurance exchange under the new federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama.

Said Schaaf: "This is a political decision. We shouldn't help the federal government foist this upon us."

Although the state needs to update the Medicaid computer system, Schaefer said it could afford to wait on the outcome of the presidential election and the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on a challenge to the federal health care law to see whether the law remains in place.

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