MoDOT suing state over ability to use funds for employee raises

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission is asking a Cole County judge to rule on whether it can use the State Road Fund to give employees a raise.

On Thursday, MHTC filed a lawsuit against Ken Zellers, acting commissioner of the Office of Administration, over his refusal to commit funds from the State Road Fund to implement the Missouri Department of Transportation's new market pay plan.

The state agency is asking for declaratory judgment on whether it has authority to use almost $60 million from the State Road Fund to increase employee pay.

The case has been assigned to Cole County Judge Cotton Walker.

MHTC is the governing body over MoDOT and has authority over the state highway system and "sole discretion" to use money in the State Road Fund, according to the state Constitution.

As acting commissioner, Zellers oversees certain withdrawals from the state treasury.

MHTC is arguing the Missouri Constitution grants it "broad access" to the State Road Fund to fulfill its duties of designing, constructing and maintaining state highways, which would include hiring and retaining employees.

In its petition to the court, MHTC said MoDOT has urgent workforce needs.

Approximately 600 MoDOT employees have left the department every year since 2016 and recent turnover has been greater. The department is expecting to lose more than 800 employees this year.

While many have left for high paying jobs at private companies or with city and county transportation departments, nearly 600 MoDOT employees have a second job.

With state appropriations, MHTC said the department hasn't been able to offer a competitive wage for the past 25 years.

MoDOT has received sporadic pay increases from the Legislature over the past few years, including a $708 annual raise for employees making less than $70,000 and 1 percent raise for everyone else in fiscal year 2019 and cost of living increases totaling 5 percent over multiple years.

In past years, the Legislature has marked appropriations to allow MoDOT the flexibility to spend what is required to fulfill its mission amid changing conditions, like weather or emergency conditions.

The General Assembly ended that system in fiscal year 2018, requiring MoDOT to spend only the amount appropriated in legislation each year.

Last session, MoDOT asked the Legislature for $276,179,950 for salaries and wages, $273,711,319 of which would come from the State Road Fund. It also requested $243,842,904 for employee benefits, $242,380,061 of which would come from the State Road Fund.

Instead, state lawmakers appropriated $267,540,631 for salaries and wages, $265, 571,910 of which came from the State Road Fund. It granted $238,715,397 for employee benefits, $237,249,839 of which came from the State Road Fund.

To implement its new market pay plan, MoDOT would need an additional $37,043,472 from the State Road Fund for salaries and wages and $22,370,405 for employee benefits.

With enough money in the fund to implement pay increases without obstructing other department operations, the only holdup is authorization from Zellers and the Office of Administration.

The acting commissioner could face two to five years in prison for knowingly certifying payments not authorized by law, and he cannot pre-approve payments unless the funds have been previously appropriated by law.