One thing the Missouri General Assembly has failed to do over the years is compensate state employees adequately for the work they do, candidates for the Missouri House District 60 seat say.
Missouri ranks 50th among the states in employee pay, according to a study ordered by the state. Overcoming the deficit is a priority for candidates Dave Griffith, a Republican, and Sara Michael, a Democrat.
The issue has been at the top of area legislators' priority lists for years, but having concerns about the state of pay and getting lawmakers to act on it are two entirely different matters, the candidates say.
The 60th District consists of most of Jefferson City, with the exception of the southeast section.
"Missouri employees have been under-appreciated and underpaid for years," Michael said. "There have been a number of actions — or lack thereof — that have eroded away at the interest that employees have to work for the state."
Neither the General Assembly nor other bodies in state government have shown respect to employees by rewarding them for the work they do, she added.
The lack of reward manifests itself in state employee pay rankings.
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.
Getting state employees the pay they deserve will be difficult, Griffith said. In Jefferson City, it's easy to see state employees are underpaid. But in places like Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield and Joplin, state employees don't represent as large a percentage of the workforce.
"Each legislator has got their own priority," Griffith said. "That is not a big priority for them, and it needs to be."
Griffith and Michael are running to fill the position currently held by state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, who is completing his fourth term. Term limits prevent Barnes from seeking re-election.
Barnes and state Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, who represents District 59 and is completing his fourth term, have been involved in those conversations for the past eight years, Griffith said.
Their efforts were valiant, but state pay successes have come in small doses, Griffith said.
In a compromise that came at the end of the last General Assembly, legislators agreed to increase "pay" for state employees who make less than $70,000 by $700. They 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.
"Seven hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket," Griffith said. "Had they not had that, it would have been a bigger hit in their own pockets."
Regardless of his or her party affiliation, the new District 60 representative will have to work hard to convince conservative lawmakers of the necessity to better pay state employees, Michael said. That person has to echo Jefferson City residents' desires.
"I've spoken to a number of Democrats who serve in the House," she said. "The general consensus is that it is very frustrating. The bad part of what's developed in the General Assembly is that there is such a level of arrogance with the supermajority that they treat those across the aisle disrespectfully."
Electing a Republican to the chamber would just continue status quo, Michael said.
"Those on my side of the aisle are passionate and optimistic and willing to work," Michael said. "They hit a wall because it is such an ugly environment."
Republicans' priorities are profit, special interests and big business, she said, and they have bought into the idea that feeding the wealthy will somehow trickle down to the employees. Somehow, the mindset that giving tax breaks to big business is going to fix the state's ills has to be changed, she said.
The solution to improving state employee pay may be realized by convincing other lawmakers of the role the employees play throughout the state, Griffith said.
"I'm going to build relationships with other legislators and convince them of the importance of our workforce," Griffith said. "That's going to take some conversations."
And it has to be done incrementally, he added.
"It's not going to all come in one year," Griffith said. "It may not come in two or three. But if we're in a stalemate, nothing is going to happen."
The Republican supermajority in the House has demonstrated state workers are not an overall priority, Michael said.
She said elimination of the Merit System — which was created in the mid-1940s to protect employees from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism and political coercion — shows the General Assembly's willingness to leave employees unprotected.
The new law puts practically all state employees under the same regulations, including removing the testing requirements to qualify for a job and canceling the appeals process for an employee who was disciplined or fired.
"These people who have devoted their lives to public service for less money are now subject to political whims," Michael said.
The new legislator will have to find a way to make changes that are best for Missouri, she said.
The candidates will face each other in a forum hosted by the News Tribune on Tuesday evening at Jefferson City Hall. A forum featuring hopefuls for the Missouri Senate's 6th District also will be held that evening. The forums begin at 6 p.m.