House budget plan keeps Rock Island Trail development funds

      The state House has voted to preserve more than $69-million in federal dollars to support development of another hiking and biking trail on a former railway.  That funding survived two attempts to redirect it over concerns some House members have about its use.

Representative Tim Taylor (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Governor Mike Parson (R) recommended that appropriation, which would use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  It would pay to revitalize a 78-mile stretch of the former Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad corridor, commonly referred to now as the “Rock Island Trail.”  Work would include the stabilization of tunnels and bridges. 

      Bunceton representative Tim Taylor (R) said his family owns property along the Katy Trail, Missouri’s other hiking and biking trail along a former railway.  He said he’s seen how communities have benefitted from being along that trail.

      “It has brought a sense of small prosperity to our community.  When the railroad left, as it did on the Rock Island, much of the town ceased to exist.  We have prospered and those towns and cities along the Rock Island are going to prosper just like the Katy Trail.”

      The Rock Island corridor runs through Bland, hometown of Representative Bruce Sassman (R).  He said hiking and biking trails are engines for economic development, and this is Missouri’s chance to expand them.

Representative Bruce Sassman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I have been working on this Rock Island development project for 35 years, almost half of my life, and it’s a vision to create a trail system and a trail route that is unlike anything in the country and maybe in the world.  I wish you could see this project through my eyes.  I wish you knew the history of this project,” said Sassman.

      Taylor and Sassman were among those who spoke against amendments that would have blocked that $69-million from going to the trail.  One of those, offered by Chillicothe Republican Rusty Black, would have diverted that money to maintenance that has been deferred on other Department of Natural Resources’ properties.

      “In my eight years up here, every year we have had this fight with DNR about maintaining what we already have.  This is a one-time use of funds that, if we spend it on the trail, is going to further dilute the sales tax money that they get to use to maintain all of the other parks in the state,” said Steelville Republican Jason Chipman.  “What we have already is in bad shape and we could put a big dent in the maintenance needed for all of the other parks that bring in a whole lot of people to Missouri rather than partially work on this one.”

      “I think there’s arguments to be made for and against the Rock Island Trail,” said Representative Dirk Deaton (R-Noel), the House Budget Committee’s vice-chairman.  “I think it’s compelling to me as a conservative, as a fiscal conservative, you’ve got to take care of what you’ve got before you start taking on new things – building new things, acquiring new things, setting up new things, and we do have a substantial maintenance backlog within our state parks and so I think we really ought to address that before we do this, and then you can get to the question of, ‘If we do this.’”

Representative Scott Cupps (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Another amendment was offered by Shell Knob Republican Scott Cupps.  It proposed that the money be withheld from the project until lawsuits involving property owners along the Rock Island route are settled.

      “The rationale for that is there is concern that we will spend millions and millions of dollars on this project and, depending on what happens in federal court, we may not be able to complete it until this is resolved,” said Cupps.  “If you stand up for land owners’ rights and property owners’ rights … then you sure as heck better be a ‘yes’ on this.”

      Cupps noted that there were similar legal disputes for people who owned property along the Katy Trail, which he says weren’t settled until 11 years after that trail opened.

      Lawmakers who want work on the trail to proceed argued that those lawsuits’ outcomes will have nothing to do with Rock Island’s development.

Representative Jason Chipman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “This is not about converting it back to ownership by these folks who are suing.  They simply seek to reclaim the money for land that was never part of their farm in the first place, whenever they purchased it,” said Representative Don Mayhew (R-Crocker).  “These lawsuits, this is a red herring.  It has nothing to do with it.  The state can proceed with this.”

      In the end the House voted down those amendments 53-81 and 62-70, respectively, and then voted to keep the money for the trail project in the budget. 

      Some, like Representative Jim Murphy (R-St. Louis), were glad to move forward that spending proposal.

      “When I leave here I think it’d be nice if I could look at one thing and say, ‘We did this for the future.  We did this for this state.  It’s long lasting.  We didn’t spend it on frivolous things.  We didn’t buy shiny objects.  We built something that our citizens can use now and in the future,” said Murphy.

      The House voted today to advance that spending plan to the Senate.

House Budget Committee weighs proposed pay hike for state employees

      The Parson Administration has made its case to the House Budget Committee for a proposed 5.5-percent pay increase for state employees. 

Missouri Budget Director Dan Haug testifies before the House Budget Committee (Photo: Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

      The committee heard from the administration’s budget director, Dan Haug, who outlined the motivation for the plan that would cost about $72-million including $41-million in general revenue.  It would set state employee pay at a minimum of $15 an hour and kick in February 1, if it can get through the legislature by then.

      Haug said Missouri must do something to respond to recent and rapid changes in the labor market. 

      “We’re getting to the point where if we have more vacancies and more turnovers we’re not going to be able to operate our state facilities,” said Haug.  He said some facilities with minimum staffing requirements, such as prisons and mental health facilities, have resorted to forced overtime to fill shifts. 

      “That’s not the way we want to run the state,” said Haug. 

      Haug said one reason for proposing a February 1 start date is that a stipend being paid out of federal money to state employees in some institutions came to an end at the end of December.   

“We feel like if we wait until July 1, which is typically when we would do a pay increase, when the new fiscal year starts, then we’re just going to keep bleeding employees and we’re going to get to those critical numbers where we don’t have enough employees to safely operate our correctional institutions and our mental health institutions and provide the quality of services that the citizens of this state deserve,” Haug said. 

“We’re just responding to the wage market that is out there.  We are trying to figure out what a market wage is that’s going to let us be competitive.  We’re not trying to set the market.  Honestly we’re not even trying to get to the middle of the market.  We’re just trying to get somewhere where we can be competitive and get people in and keep our good people,” said Haug. 

Most lawmakers seemed to agree with the desire to increase state employee pay.

“Let’s face it:  we’re in competition with McDonald’s right now, so obviously something has to break there, without a doubt,” said Representative Don Mayhew (R-Crocker).   

      Excelsior Springs Republican Doug Richey agrees, but he has an issue with setting a new minimum baseline of $15 per hour for state employees’ pay.  He said given existing pay structures that could set the income of some new state hires too close to the level of pay of long-term employees.

      “Creating an arbitrary baseline prevents us from being able to be responsive to the market, as well as sends an unintended message that would be somewhat negative to those … who have been working for two decades,” said Richey.  “You can work for 20 years in your job, have tremendous institutional memory and ability, but you’re really no different than a part-time custodial worker at 17 years of age with no experience.”     

      “I wanna get away from the $15 an hour because to me that’s just a number.  That’s not what it’s going to take to get people in.  I’m an employer … in unskilled jobs and I can’t get people for $17 an hour, so that $15 an hour is just a number we’re throwing out there and I believe that is for political reasons,” said Representative Richard West (R-Wentzville)“Let’s do realistic and what’s it going to take to hire?  For one department it may require 15, for another department it may require 18, for another department it may require 22.”

The Missouri House Budget Committee takes testimony from Missouri Budget Director Dan Haug (Photo: Mike Lear, Missouri House Communications)

      Many legislative budget makers resist using federal funds to support ongoing expenses, like state employee pay.  They refer to it as, “one time money.”  Haug said this proposed pay hike relies only on state funds.

      “Missouri’s revenues are doing very well.  Right now the state’s economy is doing well.  We have more people coming back to work.  Our revenues are coming in very strongly.  They came in very strongly last fiscal year.  The consensus revenue estimate shows strong growth through fiscal year 23,” said Haug.  “Even at a very conservative growth rate of 1.5-percent growth in general revenue we can easily afford this ongoing pay increase.”

      Haug, who has worked with the state’s budget for more than 25 years, said, “I feel very confident that we can afford what we’re doing now and what we’re going to need to do in the future.”

      Other legislators asked whether studies should be done to make sure the state needs the employees it has, or that pay increases would be going to the employees who are most needed or deserving.  Haug said the state has reduced its workforce significantly in the past ten years, and said such an employee pay review could take months, and changes to the labor market necessitate a quick response.  He said state employee turnover in some positions and pay levels has been as high as 55-percent. 

      The committee has not voted on the bill which includes the proposed pay plan, House Bill 3014