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Surveys in 2005, 2012 and 2016 all had the same findings — Missouri state government employees were last in the nation when comparing their average pay with their counterparts around the country.

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And the 2016 study noted that meant Missouri government workers earned, on average, 12.6 percent below market values.

Add in benefits — like health care and retirement — and the deficit improved to 4.6 percent below market, the 2016 study reported.

So, state employees' compensation remains an issue for many of the constituents who three candidates for Missouri's 6th District state Senate seat are seeking votes from.

The candidates all are from Jefferson City.

In the order they will appear on the Nov. 6 election ballot, the candidates are state Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, a Republican who can't run for the House again because of term limits; Democrat Nicole Thompson; and Libertarian Steven Wilson.

Basic pay

"Every year we talk about it, but we need to make it more of a priority," Bernskoetter told the News Tribune. "(This) year, the (House) Budget Chair, Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob), said that he thought we needed to make it more of a priority, and he got a state employee pay raise in the budget — even though it wasn't much.

"Hopefully, we can do it again this (coming) year."

Thompson said: "It's absolutely a problem that the Legislature needs to address — even more urgently now, with the medical premiums increasing, further reducing state employees' pay, (and) where state jobs may have been viewed as more stable employment in the past, the elimination of the Merit System has taken away any view of that, as well."

She said the current situation is giving "fewer and fewer reasons (for employees) to stay with the state workforce, and it's costing the taxpayers more money in overtime, training and workplace injuries."

As she said during the primary election campaign, Thompson wants lawmakers to reverse the corporate tax cuts approved in recent years — cuts, she said, have created a hole in state revenues that make it harder to pay the employees who do the state's work.

But Wilson doesn't think state workers' pay is an issue "that should be addressed by legislation. I do not believe that the Legislature should be trying to dictate what the state employees should be making."

Instead, he said: "I support privatization as much as possible," with the state hiring private contractors to do its work — in the same manner as the Revenue Department now awards license offices to private contractors.

And, where the state does have employees under its direct control, Wilson said: "I would rather have the Missouri voter vote on the pay scale, instead of (setting it) by law."

Benefits

All three candidates said the discussion of state employees' compensation must include benefits.

"I just feel like the public pensions need to be addressed before we start dealing with salary," Wilson said. "One of the things that people have acknowledged around the country is, that public pensions are so underfunded that there really is no way for you to balance the ledger.

"If you're going to maintain a public pension, I would recommend it go from a defined benefit to defined contribution — like a 401k."

"Defined benefit" is what the state generally has now, where retirement payments are determined by the total salary an employee earned over the years as well as the total amount of service — and are paid until the retiree dies, from a general fund managed by the retirement system.

Under a "defined contribution" plan, money is put into an individual account for each employee — such as an IRA (individual retirement account) or a 401(k) system (named for the section of federal law that authorized the accounts) — and benefits are paid out until the money runs out.

In each system, the money is invested until needed, so the original payments into the system grow.

Currently, the state makes contributions to the plan for all employees — and that contribution is adjusted each year based on the system's predicted needs and the state's revenues.

Plus, all state employees first hired after Jan. 1, 2011, must contribute 4 percent of their own income to the retirement system.

Under a defined contribution plan, Wilson said, "It would be a fixed government contribution, and that would have to be supplemented by the state employee.

"So, if they wanted a better retirement, they would have to start paying in more per paycheck."

Thompson told the News Tribune: "I wouldn't want to be in favor of switching it to a 401(k) without really reviewing that.

"But the (2016) compensation study itself talks about that (retirement) benefit just not being in line with other benefits."

She said that study showed Missouri government's pension benefits aren't competitive with the benefits offered by other employers.

Bernskoetter spent much of his House career as head of the Joint Committee on State Employee Wages, which paid for both the 2012 and 2016 studies.

He noted the Legislature this year added more money for retirement plans "than we did the year before, so we're putting more money into the retirement fund."

The state actually has several retirement funds — but the one affecting the largest group of employees is MOSERS, the Missouri State Employees Retirement System.

"They've got a new director, now," Bernskoetter said. "They weren't getting the returns on their investment like some of the other funds were (in the past) — they were going more for the long, steady growth — and they missed some of the returns that have been going off the stock market.

"Now, hopefully, they can pick up some of those gains that the stock market's been achieving."

Merit System changes

Lawmakers this year approved what many supporters called "Merit Reform," which essentially eliminated the 70-year-old Merit System that required employees to be hired based on skills tests and provided employees with due process protections from supervisors' actions.

With a few exceptions for employees whose jobs are controlled by federal funds, all state employees now are covered by the at-will laws — that is, an employer can discipline or fire an employee for any reason, or no reason at all.

And the employee who thinks that action was wrong has to take their case to the courts, not the in-state Personnel Advisory Board.

"I think some of that (change) will go into helping with the state employees' pay from the reforms that we did with the Merit System," Bernskoetter said.

He's not concerned the changes will allow supervisors or state agency heads to make employees' jobs subject to political considerations.

"There are so many safeguards in place now, I don't have that concern," Bernskoetter said, noting state employment still is covered by protections offered by federal law — including no discrimination on the basis of age, race, creed, color, ethnicity or religion.

But Thompson's not so sure those changes are a good thing.

"The thing is, by saying this will help us end up with a better, more professional workforce," Thompson explained, "they're telling the state workers who are there right now that they don't see them as good employees or a professional workforce."

Wilson didn't comment on the Merit System changes.

About pay in general, he said state government employees are "insulated" from market forces that drive pay for other employees in other areas.

"If you make $29,500 (a year) and you go through a bust, that state employee might be dealing with a layoff," he explained. "But, when they get hired back, they're going to be making $29,500.

"But, in the private sector, you may have to take a pay cut — and that may be permanent."

He urged the state to privatize its jobs.

"Eventually, I would like to see the entire cachet of employment privatized," Wilson said, "but I think flipping the switch like that is just irrational.

"You're going to have to give the people time to adjust."

And state employees always may be needed in oversight areas, like the Public Service Commission and its regulation of monopoly utilities, Wilson said.

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