Travis Fitzwater, the Republican incumbent seeking re-election to the House District 49 seat, said he has been a proponent of raising pay for state employees the four years he has been in office.
"I have advocated for state employee pay increases with our budget chair in the House," Fitzwater said.
Lisa Buhr, Fitzwater's Democratic opponent, said raising state employee pay is necessary for Missouri and the families who rely on state employees in the district.
"There are families that depend on these state workers, the moms and dads, who are making like $21,000, $22,000 a year," Buhr said. "To try and take care of a family, even if you have two people that work for the state making $20,000 a year, that's not a lot."
Thousands of state employees live in Callaway County, which makes up most of House District 49. Fitzwater said the effects of Missouri's bottom ranking nationwide in state employee pay has resulted in lower retention rates with state departments, including the Department of Corrections.
The district includes Fulton State Hospital, which is part of the state's correctional system, and Fitzwater said he has met with DOC workers to discuss state employee pay.
In July 2016, the state released the results of a Compensation and Benefits Study, which found the base salary for Missouri's employees is on average 10.4 percent below the recommended salary range midpoints (of market values), while benefits offered are about 19.7 percent above market values. Regardless of the higher value for state benefits, employee incomes remained 4.6 percent below market when totaling base salaries, incentives and benefits, according to the report.
Due to Missouri's low unemployment rate, Fitzwater said, it can be hard for the state to retain employees. In a department that can involve a rough work environment like the DOC, people will look for other jobs in their community if pay isn't high enough, he added.
"That's what we're seeing with DOC with their inability to get the amount of employees that they need to really administer the jail system, the prison system in our state," Fitzwater said.
Buhr, who has been a legislative assistant at the state Capitol for about five years and has worked for the state the past 18 years, said her experience as a state employee is part of what inspired her to run for the office. A single mother of three, Buhr said she has had to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Legislators agreed at the end of the last General Assembly to increase "pay" for state employees who make less than $70,000 by $700. The lawmakers increased pay for employees making more than $70,000 by 1 percent. However, the employees won't see the increase in their pockets because the increase — which goes into effect after the first of the year — will be used to offset increases in employees' health insurance premiums.
Buhr's health care deductible is more than doubling, she said.
"They give you a raise just to say that they did it before campaign time — just to be able to claim that they gave you one — and your insurance is going to go up more than what you even got as an increase," Buhr said.
Fitzwater agreed Missouri needs to take into account insurance costs for state employees when considering pay increases. If state employees get a raise but premium costs also rise, he said, "it's not a pay increase necessarily; we're just keeping it level."
Premium increases can eat money out of household budgets and put less into the community, Buhr said.
"People used to go to work for the state, not even so much for the salary, but for the benefits," she added. "And now the benefits aren't even so great either."
Fitzwater said Missouri can't "just throw money at the problem," but needs to use a level-headed approach to decide where increases will pay off the most.
"You kind of have to go department by department and figure out who's hurting the most, and I would say Department of Corrections employees are probably getting the lowest end of the stick," he added.
Fitzwater said the budget problem the state faces is mandated spending on social services that are "skyrocketing every year." With Missouri being a balanced-budget state, it is a matter of using what discretionary spending remains to accomplish goals like raising state employee pay, he said.
"You've just got to prioritize on a yearly basis where you're going to put those dollars, and (prioritizing raising state employee pay is) what we're doing, and that's what I've advocated for since I've been in the Legislature," Fitzwater said.
To pay for state employee raises, Missouri needs to raise taxes on corporations or the wealthy to pay for state employee raises, Buhr said, citing frustrations with tax cuts and breaks she believes haven't benefited the working class. Buhr said the state should be less afraid to ask large businesses to foot more of the bill, adding she supports increasing the minimum wage as well.
"We give all of these businesses these tax cuts and these special tax breaks to come to our state, and you know, we should be taxing the businesses that are here proportionately," Buhr said.
Buhr said Missouri also hurt its state workers by eliminating the Merit System, calling it a mistake. She was never part of the Merit System, Buhr added, but said it was good for employees who were.
"There's no more complaint process, there's no more protections for (employees on the Merit System)," she said. "Ones that would be in line for a raise or a scheduled step increase, all of those things are gone. There's no guarantees of any type of incremental raises for those employees."