JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — Instead of proposing budget cuts in his annual State of the State address, Gov. Mike Parson wants lawmakers to increase pay, spend more money on education and invest in childcare.
In the governor’s nearly hour-long speech, he praised the state’s approach to the pandemic, saying Missouri’s economy is strong. The state has a historic amount of money, and the multi-billion-dollar budget includes increasing teacher pay.
“We have the opportunity to make fundamental improvements to our state that will serve Missourians now and into the future,” Parson said. “None of this would have been possible would have been possible without the efforts state government undertook to lessen the impacts of COVID-19.”
Parson commended the state’s surplus of money to Missouri’s COVID response, saying leaders made tough decisions but never backed down.
“That’s why we never had state mandates or forced businesses, schools, or churches to close,” Parson said. “We protected lives and livelihoods.”
In the past week, Missouri has reported more than 62,000 new COVID cases, roughly 9,000 new cases a day.
“When it comes to fighting the pandemic, the governor’s hands-off approach continues to extract a hefty toll with new cases shattering records almost daily,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, told reporters after the address. “The reality is forcing many schools to consider shutting down as student and teacher absences skyrocket.”
Quade her own kids were inside the Capitol Wednesday after Springfield Public School District, the largest in the state, closed its doors for the rest of the week because of the virus.
“Just like so many working parents are currently struggling day to day while schools continue to close their doors,” Quade said.
Parson reiterated Wednesday; his position will not change.
“We used common sense and took a balanced approach to the pandemic,” Parson said. “I firmly believe that the people should have a say through their local elected representatives and not be dictated by needless executive action or any one person.”
Another major item in his speech, increasing wages for state employees to $15 an hour and raising teacher pay.
“Half of our new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year,” Parson said. “This is unacceptable and we must do better.”
Missouri currently has the lowest starting teacher pay in the country, $25,000. Parson’s recommendation for lawmakers to approve, $38,000.
“By partnering with local school districts, we can increase the baseline salary for new teachers to $38,000 and take the first step in addressing this issue,” Parson said.
When asked if that increase was enough, Quade said it needs to be more.
“It has been decades since teachers in Missouri have been given adequate pay increases and so $38,000, while it’s a great starting point, it doesn’t make up for the loss that we’ve had over the years,” Quade said.
As for the state workers, the state’s budget director Dan Haug says there are 4,500 open positions across the state with a turnover rate of 26%. It will cost Missouri $288 million to raise employees’ wages. There’s also a $500 million investment into the MOSERS fund.
Within the $46 billion budget, there’s an incentive program for state employees to invest in their retirement savings. If workers save $25 each month, the state will match the contribution into the MOSERS Deferred Compensation Program.
His proposal also includes funding to double the capacity at the state’s six autism centers. The $4.2 million will help cut down on the long waiting lists at the centers. Also under the health care category, Parson has allocated 4400 million in federal dollars to help pay for personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing needs, testing, and vaccinations.
Later this year, a new hotline will go into effect to help those dealing with a mental health crisis. In Missouri, the governor has set aside $4.4 million to establish the new 988 hotlines.
The state also has nearly $3 billion of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to spend, which will go towards infrastructure like increasing broadband, the economy, like expanding the state’s 57 career centers, investing in higher education capital projects, building a public safety crime lab for the state and in health care.
“While I do not agree with the massive expansion of federal debt, the responsibility falls to us to invest wisely and make smart decisions,” Parson said. “We must do what the federal government cannot.”
Quade said Democrats left the speech feeling hopeful, as many of the budget items are in line with the values of investing in people and in the state.
“It was nice to hear those things that we’ve been asking for for a very long time are going to be priorities this year,” Quade said.
Parson is also recommending higher education institutions be given a 5% increase in funding, and investing more than $700 in childcare, to help with workforce development. He said the state’s unemployment is lower than before the pandemic at 3.3%.
Missourians will also be receiving a tax cut this year of 5.3%. All these recommendations need to be approved by lawmakers over the next four months.