Missouri lawmakers: Trust issues could derail MoDOT funds

Photograph courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House of Representatives: 
Members of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight listen Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, as MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna delivers the annual report of pending applications for memorial highway and bridge designations along with other items.
Photograph courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House of Representatives: Members of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight listen Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, as MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna delivers the annual report of pending applications for memorial highway and bridge designations along with other items.

Missouri lawmakers reiterated their concerns surrounding the Missouri Department of Transportation's spending authority Monday, roping in two of the governor's legislative priorities.

The Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, made up of lawmakers in both the Missouri House and Senate, convened its first meeting Monday to receive its annual report from MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna.

Republicans on the committee began and ended the hearing asking about a lawsuit the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission filed in 2021 seeking declaratory judgment on whether the department had the authority to pay for employee pay raises from the state road fund. The case, last heard in February 2022, is awaiting a decision from Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker.

Rep. Don Mayhew, a Crocker Republican and co-chair of the Joint Transportation Oversight Committee, asked the MoDOT director if he agreed with the notion that "the Legislature has been tasked with the duty of keeping an eye on the people's money."

McKenna responded, "I believe the people have been the ones that have created the Constitution, and they have put specific and special provisions in, in the case of the Highways and Transportation Commission. That's the way the Constitution reads."

McKenna said the commission is seeking a judge to decide whether MoDOT could adjust a budget passed by legislators. He said the department had the power until the removal of estimated appropriations around 2018.

If the judge rules in favor of the commission, Mayhew questioned whether the department could request funding for a road project and then use it on pay raises or other functions.

McKenna said he doesn't expect the ruling to dramatically change the department's budget process but instead provide clarity on whether the department can spend from the state road fund without direct legislative approval.

Sen. Justin Brown, R-Rolla, asked if the department would drop its lawsuit if lawmakers approved Gov. Mike Parson's proposed 8.7 percent pay increase for all state workers.

McKenna said the lawsuit isn't specific to pay raises and is more focused on constraints to budget adjustments.

"I think we'll have to take that under consideration," McKenna responded. "We certainly do appreciate the work that the General Assembly and the governor has done to try to keep pace with inflation rates we have. I think we're still somewhat off of the market."

He said the commission has directed him to wait to see if the department's turnover rate improves under the proposed 8.7 percent pay increase, if lawmakers pass it.

Brown said the pay raise should bring MoDOT to its desired salary levels but he wants to further discuss with MoDOT leaders how the lawsuit and pay raise interact with each other.

"The optics of it to the general public is that we're using fuel tax money to fund pay raises and salaries, which was sold to us and the public that that was not going to happen," Brown said. "That was only going to be used for roads and bridges so I want to get that real clear where that money's going."

The concerns expressed by legislators Monday echo those presented by senators during a recent committee meeting to approve the governor's two appointments to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden said lawmakers don't trust MoDOT and that lack of trust has the potential to derail the governor's proposal to spend $860 million widening parts of Interstate 70.

Rowden said some Republicans "put their neck pretty far out on the line politically" to pass the gas tax increase. He said the department's efforts soon after to use the road fund to pay salary increases for "top-level folks" makes it difficult for lawmakers to continue with the relationship as usual.

"I want to be very clear about this as someone who is going to try as hard as I can this year to fund some expansion of I-70, if it doesn't happen in the next couple years, it will not happen because legislators have no confidence in MoDOT," Rowden said. "That is an absolute reality, and I can say that more unequivocally than I've been able to say previously."

"There are still some really significant challenges, and I would hate for an uncommunicative and bloated bureaucracy to be the thing that stands in the way of the people of Missouri seeing significant successes relative to I-70, I-44, a bunch of these things we want to do," Rowden continued. "If we don't do it, it's because we don't trust MoDOT."

Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, said he wants the department to be held accountable by the new commissioners.

"Sometimes there's frustration in this building, perceived or actual, that MoDOT, because of its unique structure with the commission, is not responsive to the General Assembly and therefore the public," he said.

In response, Commissioner Warren Erdman vowed to be "a very aggressive overseer of MoDOT."

During the hearing Monday, Mayhew noted the $859 million proposal for I-70 would be funded entirely by the state's general revenue fund.

"That's a big chunk of general revenue," he said. "And that was after we passed the gas tax."

MoDOT has collected $118 million through the gas tax since the incremental increases were implemented, McKenna said. It's more than predicted, he said.

Mayhew questioned why the department is focused on a $2.75 billion project to expand the full length of I-70 -- $859 million would address about 50 miles of it -- and how the project would affect maintenance and staffing issues plaguing the department.

"It puts a further strain on them," McKenna responded, adding that he's been directed by the commission to focus more on customer service issues.

MoDOT has been experiencing staffing challenges for years. Since 2016, 600-900 employees have left the department each year, which McKenna said is about two or three times the healthy rate. He said approximately 80 percent of turnover is related to employee compensation.

Inability to staff maintenance facilities in Kansas City and St. Louis has led to their closures. The loss of employees means the loss of nearly 15,000 years of combined experience, a metric McKenna said MoDOT anticipates it would take a decade to restore.

"At the staffing levels we're at right now, we're literally over a million labor hours short in this past year to do the work that we do," McKenna said.

In July 2022, the commission approved a partial market compensation plan within a budget approved by lawmakers. McKenna said salary increases were given based on the market for each position.

Entry-level maintenance workers, about 3,000 in total, were given a raise from $14.75 per hour to just over $18 per hour, McKenna said. Annual salaries for construction inspectors were raised from about $42,000 to nearly $60,000, but he said the department was losing workers to $90,000 salaries in the private sector.

Rep. Steve Butz, D-St. Louis, said he's amazed anyone takes a job at MoDOT because the private sector often pays twice the salary.

McKenna said many of the department's engineering and maintenance positions are paying about 40 percent below the market.

McKenna said the 5.5 percent pay raise lawmakers approved last year, along with the market salary adjustments, have started making a difference in turnover as the rate has slowed over the past couple months. January was the exception with 72 employees leaving.

photo Photograph courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House of Representatives Members of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight listen Monday as MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna delivers the annual report of pending applications for memorial highway and bridge designations along with other items.