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Legislators: Broadband, higher state pay are priorities

by Philip Joens | February 10, 2018 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated February 11, 2018 at 12:36 p.m.

Local lawmakers listed broadband access, state worker wages and higher education funding as top priorities for the ongoing legislative session Friday.

State Rep. Mike Bernskoetter and state Sen. Mike Kehoe, both Republicans from Jefferson City, met with about 60 people Friday morning at the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bernskoetter said he's optimistic the General Assembly will come up with a measure to spur building more broadband internet networks in rural areas. Kehoe said he hopes state workers will get a pay raise and cuts to higher education will be avoided.

A Missouri Senate committee heard testimony Wednesday about a bill that could establish a fund to disburse state money, private donations or other grants to communities seeking to expand broadband internet service. A companion bill in the House also had a hearing Wednesday. A second House bill encourages electric co-ops to build more broadband infrastructure.

Bernskoetter said Friday he's optimistic some bill can be passed to begin the process of building larger broadband networks. House and Senate members, Gov. Eric Greitens and the Missouri Department of Economic Development all have said since the beginning of the year that broadband access remains a top priority.

"There's all kinds of people looking at it," Bernskoetter said. "Hopefully we can come up with a solution."

When Greitens unveiled his budget proposal last month, he included a $650 raise for all state government workers earning less than $50,000. That would affect 70-80 percent of state employees, Kehoe said.

Kehoe said Friday that the House and Senate might come up with a different solution, but he hopes state workers will receive some type of pay raise after the session ends.

"Trying to do long-term pay opportunities for employees is the long-term goal," Kehoe said.

Bernskoetter said changes could be made to make workers' health care benefits slightly less generous, using that money to partially offset pay increases.

Missouri Budget Director Dan Haug said in January the overall budget should grow by about $200 million in the next fiscal year. Federal tax cuts passed by Congress last year and a 2015 state tax cut should cut state revenues by about $300 million.

Kehoe acknowledged passing a balanced budget will be tough this year.

Greitens' proposed budget includes an $87 million increase in spending on K-12 education. Kehoe emphasized spending money on K-12 education remains important. He hopes legislators will spend more money on transportation needs for K-12 school districts, as that remains a chief concern around the Jefferson City area.

Greitens' budget calls for $70 million in cuts to higher education institutions next year, a reduction of 7.7 percent from the current fiscal year. Kehoe said educational institutions in Mid-Missouri, like State Technical College of Missouri in Linn, provide businesses around the state with the highly skilled workers they need.

"We think that cutting funding in education, where we're training people how to work, is probably not the thing we need to do," Kehoe said. "It's not about giving them an increase; it's about bringing them back up to where they were two or three years ago."

Kehoe also said further improvements to the Capitol could snarl traffic as renovations commence in the coming months. Previous renovations included replacement of a lead liner under the building's main exterior steps with a rubber liner that should last about 100 years.

In the upcoming phase, existing stone on the exterior that has deteriorated beyond repair will be replaced. Repairs to the Capitol's dome also will be made.

To accommodate the renovation, the circle drive along the south side of the Capitol will be closed. Kehoe said this will save the state money.

"Timing and pricing change significantly when we allow them to shut down that and allow them to stage their material on the lawn," Kehoe said.

He said the renovations will be painful and expensive but will ensure the building lasts for at least another 100 years. The work should be finished by November 2020.

Kehoe said the south side of the circle drive likely will shut down after the legislative session ends in May, but it could happen earlier. The north side of the circle drive temporarily could become a two-way street during construction.

Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce President Randy Allen said Friday the Capitol is pivotal for the city's tourism industry.

"It's Jeff City's No. 1 tourist attraction by far," Allen said.

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