Both candidates hoping to represent Missouri's House District 59 realize no matter who wins, they'll be challenged to get colleagues in the General Assembly to agree to one of their priorities — increasing pay for state workers.
The candidates — Rudy Veit, a Republican from Wardsville who is an attorney, and Linda Ellen Greeson, a Democrat from Eldon who is a retired teacher — are competing for the seat held currently by state Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City. Bernskoetter is completing his fourth term in the House and is term-limited from running again for the seat.
"What other states pay varies from state to state," Veit said. "But we know that we are at the bottom of the rung. We know we are losing good employees."
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.
"It's very concerning," Greeson said, "because of the amount of state workers who reside in the 59th District."
The district includes a portion of eastern Jefferson City, most of Cole County and a portion of northern Miller County.
Greeson said inflation and stagnant wages have combined over time to lower state workers' standards of living.
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. The lawmakers 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.
The challenge, both candidates said, is convincing other legislators of the importance of increasing state pay.
Greeson said legislators have to be educated. They work with agencies every day who are made up of underpaid workers.
"If they are state legislators, then their offices are in Jefferson City — in the Capitol," Greeson said. "Some of those state workers are working directly for them."
And many thousands of state workers are spread throughout the state, doing work in all its urban and rural communities, she added. People are taking those jobs not necessarily for the money, but because they are passionate about public service.
An approach for Veit to convincing other lawmakers of the importance of public employees pay increases would be to demonstrate people have little incentive to go to work for the state. The 59th District representative needs to spend time showing that the state hires people for specific jobs, spends thousands of dollars training them, then can't retain them because they can provide for their families better in the private sector.
The cost to the state, which wishes to be a good steward of the public's funds, is not well accounted for, he said.
"I believe we could probably show that state wages would not cost that much to increase," Veit said. "If we want to keep a quality, skilled workforce, we have to be competitive."
The new lawmaker will have to start working to convince colleagues at the beginning of the year of the value in increasing compensation for state workers, he added. And the new representative should gather with some other lawmakers who have concerns about the wages.
"Every legislator has some state employees (whom they represent). Those who have the most need to be the most forceful," he said. "The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the grease."
His predecessors have advised Veit to be as persuasive as possible. He contends he would use his skills as a litigator to try to convince other representatives to consider his side of the issue.
"Sometimes, (an issue) has to get to a crisis before people take action," he said. "That is a motivating factor for people to do something. I have to keep highlighting the data."
The concerns about take-home pay are real for state employees, Greeson said. But so are concerns about their futures.
While state employees may enjoy some of the better benefits in the nation, those benefits don't overcome increasingly weakened take-home pay, she said. One thing state employees have to look forward to is a well-structured retirement. However, there have been discussions about changing state pension systems.
It has been suggested the Missouri State Employee Retirement System — which administers retirement, life insurance and long-term disability benefits to most state employees — be changed to more of a voluntary plan, like a 401(k), Greeson said.
"Over the years, companies and states have jumped on that and used that as a system to unload retirees and leave them on their own," she said.
The stock market has the potential to suddenly drop, leaving investors moneyless, she said. MOSERS can protect them from that fate, she said.