Missouri lawmaker: ‘We can do better than Arkansas’ on government wages"

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By Tim Sampson
Missouri News Horizon

Jefferson City, Mo. – As lawmakers continue to grapple with the fact that Missouri pays its government employees less than any other state in the country, they’ve reached at least one conclusion: “Surely we can do better than Arkansas.”

Those were the words from Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, who has co-chaired the state’s joint interim committee on employee wages. But Kehoe and his fellow committee members, who were charged with coming up with recommendations for improving employee compensation by the beginning of the legislative session in January, say they’ll need more time and resources to undertake a massive overhaul of how government workers are compensated.

Kehoe and other committee members say developing a long-range plan for employee wages is vital in order to keep talented workers from migrating to other states or to the private sector. Members of the committee reached a general consensus to keep their group going past their original deadline and expand the scope of their inquiry.

They’ll seek legislative approval to finance a broad, outside examination of the Missouri employee compensations system – inspired by a similar study that triggered massive reforms in Kansas several years ago.

“When somebody says “study” or “hire a consultant,” it just turns up every hair on my body because I hate hearing those words,” Kehoe said. “But when you have this complicated a program you unfortunately need an outside set of eyes to look at it as an expert.”

This call for a sweeping overhaul stands in contrast to the state Office of Administration’s more modest initially recommendation of a 2 percent pay increase of all government employee pay scales across the board – the first of its kind in roughly a decade.

Committee members say that proposal is not enough to raise Missouri out of last place. For the past six fiscal years, the average annual salary of Missouri workers has ranked either 49th or 50th in the country when compared to other states. During the most recent fiscal year, Missouri’s 51,642 full-time workers were making an average of $36,524 annually.
An even more telling figure is that state employees in Missouri make just over half of what federal government employees living and working in Missouri make.

“We have 50,000 state employees,” said Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, who co-chairs the committee. “We have over 900 job titles. And I don’t think a 2 percent pay increase every 10 years is a plan.”

Although Bernskoetter, Kehoe and other committee members say Missouri could find success in following in the steps of Kansas by commissioning a comprehensive, third-party study of the employee compensation system and coming back to the legislature with actionable results, it will be an uphill struggle.

“It’s going to be an extremely tight budget year next year, and hiring an outside vendor to do this kind of study is not going to be popular with everyone,” Bernskoetter said.

If committee members are successful in commissioning a study, it would be the first time such a review of government employee wages will have been conducted in Missouri since 1984