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House rejects pay increase, but time to act grows short

Measure must pass Senate by week's end

Jason Rosenbaum//January 28, 2009

House rejects pay increase, but time to act grows short

Measure must pass Senate by week's end

Jason Rosenbaum//January 28, 2009

The Missouri House took the first step toward rejecting a proposal boosting salaries for associate circuit judges and tying potential raises for circuit court judges and elected officials to state employee salary raises.

But a Jan. 31 deadline to reject the pay proposal is stirring questions about whether there will be enough time for lawmakers to act.

The Missouri Citizens’ Commission on Compensation approved a proposal in late 2008 stipulating a raise for most judges and elected officials if state employees also receive a salary increase. The commission also voted to give associate circuit judges a $1,500 raise on top of any augment. Even if state employee salaries are held constant, associate circuit judges would still receive the $1,500 increase.

On Monday afternoon, the Missouri House passed a resolution rejecting the commission’s recommendations. Two-thirds of the General Assembly’s two chambers must pass the resolution by the end of the month.

Rep. Mike McGhee, the bill’s sponsor, said elected officials shouldn’t receive a pay increase during a time of lean budgets and economic doldrums.

“We can use that money in better places throughout the state,” said McGhee, R-Odessa.

Several Democratic lawmakers who eventually voted against the resolution spent part of the Monday session proposing alterations to the measure.

Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City and an attorney, introduced an amendment to take out the proposed pay plan for elected officials. Rep. Trent Skaggs, D-North Kansas City, tried to divide the question, which would have prompted legislators to vote on proposed pay increases for judges and elected officials separately.

House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs – who presided over the chamber during debate – ruled both moves to be out of order. When addressing Skaggs’ motion, he pointed to portions of the Missouri Constitution prompting the Legislature to accept or reject the salary commission’s entire proposal.

“We are not constitutionally able to change the amounts, give ourselves a greater pay raise than that allowed by the commission or to not disprove or disprove it only in part,” Pratt, an attorney, said.

The smattering of lawmakers who voted against the resolution included members of both parties. Rep. Ed Wildberger, D-St. Joseph, said he feared a strong disincentive for lawyers to apply for judgeships because of the job’s pay scale.

“There’s an old adage that’s passed from generation to generation to generation – and that is you get what you pay for,” Wildberger said. “In these days where I know there are law firms taking lawyers right out of law school and paying them more than our circuit judges are making in most of our communities, I have to wonder who is going to apply for those jobs. Who is going to run for those jobs in a few years if we don’t keep this pay scale up where it should be?

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, also voted against the resolution. He cited concerns about judges’ pay.

“I think that judges need a pay raise,” Stevenson, an attorney, said. “We need to have better compensation for judges in this state. They’re very hard-working. They do great work. … Any pay raise state representatives would or would not get wouldn’t take effect until my replacement is elected in two years.”

Yet even lawmakers who expressed support question whether there would be enough time to pass the resolution. Rep. Michael Frame, D-Eureka, for instance, said he “couldn’t wait” to vote for the resolution, but added he was worried that the debate in the House was all for show.

“What is disturbing to me is that the issue would be used for political grandstanding – and I think that’s what’s going on right now,” Frame said in an exchange with House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville.

Two years ago, the Missouri House passed a similar resolution to block the commission’s proposal. The Senate did not take the issue up, which ensured the resolution’s passage.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler – a Farmington Republican who is in charge of bringing legislation to the floor – kept the Senate open late on Monday to receive the resolution. He said he will suspend the rules in order to get it out of committee and onto the Senate floor by Thursday.

Thursday could be the de facto deadline for the resolution’s passage, since the General Assembly typically doesn’t convene on Fridays or weekends.

“It has a great chance of passing, which would deny the pay increase,” Engler said. “It sends the wrong message in these tough economic times for any pay raise.”

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