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

Houses passes vehicle tax credit bill, answering call of special legislative session

The Missouri House has passed legislation aiming to allow people to keep getting multiple tax breaks when trading in more than one vehicle on a new one.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr and Representative Becky Ruth discuss the passage of a vehicle tax credit bill, in response to the special session’s call.  (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The chamber’s Republicans say the language of House Bill 1 will allow Missourians to keep doing what they’ve been doing and say it will help all consumers.  Many House Democrats voted for the bill, though some in that caucus decried it as “corporate welfare” and said it was a topic unworthy of a special session.

The House voted today, 126-21, to send the bill to the Senate.

Governor Mike Parson (R) called a special session to coincide with today’s annual veto session to deal with the issue in response to a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in June.  The Court said state law allows a tax break to be awarded only on one vehicle, when multiple vehicles are traded in toward a new one.

Sponsor Becky Ruth (R-Festus) said her bill will give much-needed tax relief to Missourians from all walks of life.

“A young mother who is trying … maybe she’s got two cars that don’t run well and she’s trying to upgrade to a good, dependable car to take her child to school; to get to work herself.  This impacts someone that may have lost their spouse and they need to trade in those two cars to be able to get a good, reliable car.  This impacts senior citizens who are trying to downsize.  This impacts just normal, everyday working people,” said Ruth.

Shrewsbury Democrat Sarah Unsicker agreed the bill will affect some individuals, but said it will also let corporations keep from paying their “fair share.”

“There are approximately 14-thousand vehicle sales estimated to be impacted by this bill.  The Department of Revenue cannot estimate how much this tax credit costs the state or how many vehicles are commercial sales,” said Unsicker.  “If we make this just about individuals like those the sponsor referenced I would support this bill.  However, I believe this bill is, to a substantial extent, corporate welfare, and therefore I will be voting against it.”

An amendment that would have made the tax credit available only to individuals and businesses of 12 or fewer employees was voted down.

Democrats argued that the tax credit issue was not pressing and did not merit the calling of a special session.

“This Supreme Court Decision didn’t just help us figure out, this summer, that this was an issue.  Since 2008 there have been 17 administrative hearings to ask this question of whether folks are allowed to trade in multiple cars to offset the car they buy.  In all 17 administrative hearings they found they couldn’t,” said St. Louis representative Peter Merideth (D)“Regular people, regular folks were being told they couldn’t claim this credit, but we didn’t consider it an emergency.”

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (at podium) and other House Democrats were critical of the legislature’s special session not including discussion of Medicaid eligibility and gun laws. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ruth argued that the law needed to be clarified, and addressing it in a special session makes sure no eligible vehicle trades will happen without the award of tax credits, thanks to a window of 180 days before or after a new vehicle purchase in which to offset the owed sales tax.

“If you’re one of those people since the Supreme Court decision on June 25, 2019, that’s trying to figure this out … if we do this now, those folks are still going to be able to take advantage of that credit.  If we wait and we do this next session they’re not going to be able to take advantage of that credit,” said Ruth.  “The people that come before them, the people that come after them, will, and this could possibly set our state up for lawsuits.”

Ruth calls the legislation is a way to keep Missouri law consistent.

“We simply went in and made this clear and direct … so that the citizens of Missouri can continue to do business the way they are accustomed,” said Ruth.

“The problem that I have with that is the ‘business as usual’ that we’ve been doing has been established by the Supreme Court to be against the law,” said Kansas City representative Ingrid Burnett (D)“Rather than take to task the [Department of Revenue], who has been breaking the law, we have decided to call a special session to come here to change the law.”

House Democrats said lawmakers’ time would have been better spent debating changes to gun laws, and several among them filed proposals to that end.

They also wanted to see attention given to Medicaid enrollment.  House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) said Missourians with life-threatening medical conditions are losing coverage.

“There were several important issues that the legislature could have taken up in special session that could have made a positive impact on all Missourians.  This was not one of them,” said Quade.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield) said any time a special session is called people will point to other issues it could have dealt with.

“That’s not really my decision.  If the governor thinks it’s important … we were coming up here anyway for the veto session.  It’s an issue that we could work on.  It’s an issue that, as you saw, had pretty broad support,” said Haahr.

Haahr said he has asked members of his caucus to research what some other cities in the nation have done to reduce violent crime, with the aim of preparing a legislative proposal for the regular session that begins in January.

As for Medicaid enrollment, Haahr said decreases in enrollment are due to factors including an improved economy and changes in 2016 to the Affordable Care Act (ACA); and a review of Medicaid eligibility that has seen ineligible recipients being taken off the program’s rolls.  He said if a need for hearings on the issue is presented to him, he will call for them.

House bill to end modern ‘debtors’ prisons’ in Missouri signed into law

A House bill that became law Tuesday aims to keep Missourians from being jailed for failing to pay the costs of being jailed.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (center, standing) watches as Governor Mike Parson signs a bill he sponsored, House Bill 192, into law. (photo; Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192, targeting so-called “debtors prisons” in Missouri, was signed into law by Governor Mike Parson (R).  It will do away with “show cause” hearings, in which defendants must provide a reason for failing to pay “board bills” for time they spent in a county jail.  Failure to show cause often resulted in additional jail time and additional board bills that could add up to thousands of dollars.

HB 192 will let counties use civil means to collect jail debts, but they can no longer threaten additional jail time for failure to pay.

“[Courts] can still charge people for the time they spend in jail.  [They] can’t have show cause hearings anymore.  [Courts] can’t put people back in jail for not paying their jail bill,” said bill sponsor Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield).  “[Counties] can still sue that person civilly and reduce that debt to a judgment and garnish wages just like you would in a civil court with a credit card debt or a medical bill.”

DeGroot worked closely with Kansas City representative Mark Ellebracht (D) on the legislation.

“I think it means a lot in terms of just fairness and justice and how the system works,” said Ellebracht, “because once a person gets put in jail, once they get sent down for 30 days, their time is their punishment.  That’s the deal that we’ve made with people:  we’re going to sentence you to 30 days … now with regard to what you owe the sheriff for their bill … you can’t pay that bill off if you’re in jail on a warrant for not paying that bill, so it just makes sense that the sheriff should have to collect that money through the normal debt collection processes like any other creditor would have to.”

DeGroot and Ellebracht both credit St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger for spurring the legislation with a series of articles he wrote about the current system.  Those articles also earned Messenger a Pulitzer Prize.

In one case Messenger wrote about, a woman incurred more than $10,000 in “board bills” after stealing an $8 tube of mascara.

DeGroot said situations like that go against the principle of people who have paid their debt to society returning to being productive members of society, providing for themselves and their families, and getting back on the tax rolls.

“A bill like this, in my opinion, is win-win.  Yes, it helps the people that would otherwise be burdened with these jail bills, but it also helps our entire society as a whole,” said DeGroot.

Representative Mark Ellebracht worked across the political aisle with Rep. DeGroot to end what many called modern ‘debtors prisons’ in Missouri. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

In presenting HB 192 DeGroot was the most visibly animated and joyful he has been in his three years in the legislature.  He admits he was very enthused about the legislation.

“The reason I went to law school was I loved the book To Kill A Mockingbird … and I wanted to be Atticus Finch.  I wanted to change the world, and after you graduate from law school you’ve got student debt, you have houses, and kids, and cars, and who knows what, trips to Disneyworld, and you forget about being Atticus Finch.  Well now my kids are grown, and you don’t have quite the pressures you used to, and I view [House Bill 192] as probably the best thing I ever did with my law degree.”

Following their success with HB 192, Ellebracht said he and DeGroot are talking regularly about other topics they hope to team up on.

Ellebracht says any differences he and DeGroot have in party or other issues don’t really have any bearing on criminal justice reform, “When we’re looking at something and we’re saying to ourselves, ‘[Missouri law is] really handicapping a lot of folks in the economy by preventing them from getting good jobs, and [Missouri law is] really handicapping a lot of businesses by putting them in a position where they can’t afford to be hiring folks who have had that little minor scrape in their background, for fear of some kind of public retribution, or maybe a lawsuit here or there or something like that, so we need to figure out a way that we can adjust the way we do things so that it’s more fair for everybody involved.”

HB 192 also included language that would allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent offenders who meet certain criteria.

Both provisions become effective August 28.

Earlier stories:  

Legislature proposes reforms to end ‘debtor’s prisons,’ mandatory minimum sentences

House votes to prevent of jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills

House bill to relax mandatory minimum sentencing signed into law

Judges will be able to ignore Missouri’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in some cases, under a House Bill that was signed into law this week by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Cody Smith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law requires that offenders with one prior conviction serve at least 40-percent of a prison term.  Those with two prior convictions must serve at least half their term, and those with three or more must serve 80-percent.

House Bill 192 contained language that would give judges flexibility in sentencing for some nonviolent offenses.  It was part of a broader look at criminal justice reform that House members have been pursuing over several sessions.

The language was proposed by Representative Cody Smith (R-Carthage).

“When Governor Parson signed House Bill 192 that was the most significant mandatory minimum sentencing reform, to my knowledge, that we’ve ever had in Missouri,” said Smith.  “That’s an incredibly rewarding feeling when we know that it’s become clear that harsh mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent crimes only leads to bad outcomes, and this is a way that we can start to help change the trajectory of people’s lives.”

Smith said the number of people in Missouri’s prisons has steadily grown for decades.  He said many of those being incarcerated are non-violent offenders, who have a high rate of recidivism and of committing increasingly violent offenses.

“I’ve heard it said that prison is finishing school for hardened criminals,” said Smith.  “You go in for something that may be relatively innocuous in terms of violence … you come out and you’re a hardened criminal.”

Smith, who is also the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said reducing Missouri’s prison populations would also save the state money.  He notes that as recently as 2017, Missouri was on track to need two new prisons to accommodate the growing number of offenders.

“I believe that the mandatory minimum reform language that’s in House Bill 192 will help deter those costs by keeping people out of prison – again we’re talking only about folks convicted of non-violent crimes – keeping them out of prison is better for them, better for their families, better for society, and also better for taxpayers who don’t have to pay to keep them in prison.”

Ballwin representative Shamed Dogan (R) chairs the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, which handled not only HB 192, but Smith’s original legislation, House Bill 113.  He said the mandatory minimum sentencing changes will allow judges those cases to be judges.

“That is something that will give people more second chances – people who shouldn’t be in prison as long as that mandatory sentence would determine,” said Dogan.  “A judge can look at that person’s overall life; they can look at the particulars of their offense, and really just letting judges do their job, which is to make tough decisions without having their hands tied behind their backs by mandatory minimum sentences.”

Other language in HB 192 will keep counties from putting an individual back in jail for failing to pay the cost of his or her earlier jail term.

The bill’s provisions take effect August 28.

Hundreds of Vietnam veterans and families honored in Missouri Capitol ceremony

Today hundreds of Vietnam veterans and their families gathered in the Missouri State Capitol, where they were honored by members of the House as well as Governor Mike Parson and Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe.

Hundreds of Vietnam veterans gathered in the Missouri Capitol for a ceremony to honor them during the ongoing 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The ceremony was part of the continuing commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that conflict.

“It is our hope that today and each day forward that you will always know that your state legislature, along with those serving in the executive and the judicial branch and the people of our great State of Missouri have not forgotten you, our Vietnam veterans, and we will never forget your service.  To you we are forever grateful,” Grant City Representative Allen Andrews (R) told the veterans and family members who filled the rotunda.

Click here to view a montage of photos taken during the ceremony

Andrews spearheaded the ceremony, which continues an annual tradition started by former state representative Pat Conway (D-St. Joseph) who left the legislature due to term limits.

Vietnam War veterans and their families gathered in the Missouri State Capitol rotunda for a ceremony honoring them during the ongoing commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that conflict. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Unfortunately [for] many of you here today this will be the first time that you have been honored.  This potentially may be the first time that you have been offered a sincere, ‘Thank you,’ for your service to our state and to our nation,” said Andrews.

Governor Parson, who served 6 years in the Army, said it wasn’t until he wore the uniform that he understood the importance of the U.S. flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.

“When I did figure out what it all meant, it wasn’t about me wearing the uniform.  It wasn’t necessarily about you wearing the uniform.  It was about all the people that wore the uniform before me and you.  It was about the sacrifices they made for our county,” said Parson.  “The only reason that we’re all here today, the only reason all of us have lived the American dream … is because of the sacrifices people made before you – the sacrifices to this country, to this service.  They stood on solid ground for me and you.”

Parson said he also wanted to thank another group, “that normally don’t get to be recognized and sometimes we take them for granted.”

Missouri House members wait during a ceremony to honor Vietnam War veterans to present those veterans with pins commemorating their service and the 50th anniversary of that conflict. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Today I also want to say, ‘thank you,’ to the mothers, fathers, wives, children, relatives, and friends that so many times worried and prayed for us while we were overseas, while we were gone from home.  They truly deserve distinction themselves for their service to the country by helping us when we served,” said Parson.

All the veterans who attended were pinned with a lapel pin proclaiming the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.  The pins were meant to recognize, thank, and honor those who served in that conflict.  The pins were presented by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and several House members.

“Allow me to offer you our most sincere gratitude for the selfless service that you have provided to our country.  This is a nation that is rich in tradition of heroism, of bravery, that is exhibited by outstanding individuals like you – Americans who put love of country before love of self,” said Andrews.

State lawmakers to ask governor for clemency for man sentenced as teen to 241 years

A growing body of Missouri legislators wants to ask Governor Mike Parson (R) to act on behalf of a man in state prison with a sentence that they feel far exceeds his crimes.

Bobby Bostic is currently in the Jefferson City Correctional Center serving a 214 sentence for crimes he committed in one night in 1995. (photo supplied by Representative Nick Schroer)

Bobby Bostic is serving a sentence of 241 years in prison.  Now 40, he would be eligible for parole at the age of 112.  Appeals filed on his behalf have been denied, even one on the grounds that the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that people under 18 who didn’t kill anyone couldn’t be sentenced to life without parole.  That didn’t apply to Bostic because he wasn’t sentenced to life; he was sentenced for 18 crimes.

Bostic was 16 in 1995 when he and an 18-year-old accomplice robbed a group of people delivering Christmas presents for the needy.  Each man shot a victim, leaving one slightly injured.  The pair carjacked another woman and put a gun to her head.  The accomplice robbed and groped her before she was let go.

“When you look at the cases from around that time – the late ‘90s – there are murderers that are already back out on our streets that were sent [to prison],” said Representative Nick Schroer.

Schroer, an O’Fallon Republican, says he happened upon the case when someone posted an old story about Bostic on Twitter.  He sent Bostic a letter and the two began talking, and shortly thereafter Schroer and other representatives met with Bostic at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.  It was then that Schroer decided he wanted to see the man given a chance at freedom.

Representative Nick Schroer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communciations)

“I think he should do time for the mistakes that he made and the choices that he’s made, but to put him there on a taxpayer dime for 241 years I think is unjust,” said Schroer.

One of the lawmakers that joined Schroer in that visit to JCCC is Representative Barbara Washington (D-Kansas City).  She came to the same conclusion – that the sentence was too harsh.  She and Schroer agreed to work with their respective parties to get as many lawmakers as possible to sign a letter to Governor Parson asking for clemency for Bostic.

“That’s all he has.  That’s the only thing he has.  The Supreme Court did deny his brief.  They denied to hear the case on the U.S. Supreme Court level.  I believe he’s had some appeals that have been denied on the state court level, and so at this point this is the only opportunity that this young man has had,” said Washington.  “He’s lost his whole life for 24 years.  Had he not been tried in adult court he probably would’ve been out at 25.”

Schroer and Washington say Bostic has worked to better himself during his time in prison.

“I’m not saying he’s a model prisoner – I don’t know his whole record – but what I do know is that he’s tried to take advantage of the opportunities that you can take in prison,” said Washington.  “He didn’t even have a high school diploma or GED when he went in.  He has received a GED and he’s soon to be completing his associate degree.”

Representative Barbara Washington (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Schroer said Bostic’s efforts to get an education show he’s on the right path, and said some of his actions on the night of his crimes showed at least some of his thoughts were on the right path.

“The female victim indicated that while Bobby was driving, the 18-year-old, while he was trying to find her money, groped her and then threatened to rape her, but it was the 16-year-old Bobby Bostic … that stopped any rape from occurring and got her out of the car,” said Schroer.

“It’s interesting to note,” Washington adds, “that he was 16, his co-defendant was 18, and his co-defendant will be up for parole next year.”

The judge who handed Bostic his sentence has said publicly that she now regrets, “deeply,” that decision, and wants to meet with Bostic.  Schroer believes something another judge – Missouri’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer – said in his State of the Judiciary Address this week also applies.

“He indicated that we should be using our prisons to house the most serious – the criminals that we, as a society, are afraid of, not the ones that we’re mad at,” said Schroer.  “I think listening to our chief justice it’s time that we give this man a second chance.”

By Thursday afternoon around 15 lawmakers had signed on to the letter started by Representatives Schroer and Washington – lawmakers from both parties and from both the House and Senate, with more having agreed to sign it.