JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri public school teachers are on the verge of getting the raise Gov. Mike Parson offered at the start of term.
Despite attempts to set the minimum salary for teachers at $34,000 a year, a conference budget committee of senators and representatives ultimately chose to raise the base salary to $38,000. Currently, districts can pay new recruits as low as $25,000.
However, state funding for the increase will remain at around $21 million, as Parson suggested, instead of the roughly $31 million passed by the Senate. The House had originally sought not to fund an increase at all.
The costs of the increase approved by the conference committee would be cost-shared, with 70 percent coming from the state and 30 percent funded locally. In the original Senate plan, the state would have fully funded the increase.
Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, said the $38,000 base salary isn’t sustainable for school districts. He said the money would last longer if the state lowered the minimum wage to access the funds. He also expressed concern that the state might not be able to pay its share in the most financially difficult years. This session’s budget is the largest on record, as the state has access to large amounts of federal relief funds.
“With my rural districts, it can force consolidation if we go too far too fast,” said Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel.
Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, responded that $34,000 isn’t enough and it’s time for Missouri to use the federal money at its disposal to support state teachers and bring their salaries in line with that of their peers in other states.
“We have to take a stand,” Eslinger said.
Representative Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, pointed out that the bill would no longer fund increases up to $38,000 if the state lowered the minimum. If a district wanted to increase teacher salaries above $34,000, it could not have accessed state funds to do so.
Merideth also said the state does not know how many districts would then be excluded from accessing the funds.
The committee ultimately opted to keep the minimum wage at $38,000, while blocking a $13,000 increase for the lowest-paid teachers in the state.
The committee chose to fund Medicaid expansion in a single budget line, rather than dividing it into different levels of funding for specific programs. Some speculated that having the funding in one line, which was the House plan, would make it easier to undo the expansion.
The committee also agreed to fully fund school transportation for the first time in decades. The committee chair, Senator Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, made it clear that this funding cannot be guaranteed in the future.
Lawmakers also cut budget funding for the development of the Rock Island Trail. The conference committee accepted the Senate’s position on funding for the trail, which cut all of the roughly $2.7 million the House had previously approved. About $70 million in funds for the trail could still be transferred to the state budget if the House proposal for American Rescue Plan Act spending passes.
A $15 million line item in the budget was intended to reduce Missouri’s reliance on foreign medicine and medical equipment. Representative Cody Smith, R-Carthage, had suggested that the expense be transferred to the ARPA budget, which he considered a more appropriate source of funding.
A number of committee members from both parties objected, including Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, and Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City. Both senators said that HB 3020, ARPA’s funding bill, is not mandated to be passed by the Legislature like other budget bills.
According to them, this funding is too important to risk not going through the legislative process. The Senate has been particularly jammed this session.
“Have you seen how the Senate works? Hough asked. “I have no assurance that House Bill 20 will pass through our chamber in the last six session days.”
Committee members also strongly advocated for urban school and workforce development programs, with some progress.
Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, pushed on behalf of Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, for the St. Louis Public School Alumni Broadcasting Association to receive $100,000 from the state.
Hegeman reluctantly agreed after several lawmakers expressed support.
After committee chairs Hegeman and Smith proposed cutting all funding to Black Wall Street in Missouri and the Young Voices with Action MLK, May again advocated for their funding, with support from Merideth and Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. City Louis.
Black Wall Street is a global organization and movement that establishes neighborhoods in honor and support of the original Black Wall Street neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Young Voices with Action MLK strives to increase the number of young community leaders in the St. Louis area. They provide training in areas such as neighborhood leadership, urban agriculture, and support for the St. Louis Black Wall Street District.
Each program was allocated $1 million to the Senate, but the presidents had chosen to cut those funds. The committee ultimately decided that each program would receive a one-time payment of $500,000.
After May was asked by the presidents to choose between certain programs, Merideth said that May should not be punished for having high priorities and that each program should be considered on its own merits.
“Just because Senator May lobbied for these things doesn’t mean they should be competing for funding,” Merideth said.
Caroline Elik contributed to this report.