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No pay raise for judges this year

The Missouri General Assembly has overwhelmingly rejected a pay proposal that could have raised salaries for elected officials and judges.

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.

But some lawmakers objected to raising the salaries of elected officials or judges during a time of economic turmoil. Several legislators – including Senate Judiciary Chairman Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, and Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah – introduced resolutions to reject the proposal.

Missouri’s Constitution states that two-thirds of each General Assembly chamber must either accept or reject the commission’s proposal by the end of January. The Missouri House rejected the recommendation on Monday by a 129-31 margin, while the Missouri Senate struck it down 32-1 on Thursday.

Rep. Mike McGhee, the bill’s sponsor in the House, said on Monday 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.

The smattering of lawmakers who voted against the resolution included members of both parties. House Judiciary Chairman Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City – an attorney – voted against the resolution because he felt judges were underpaid. And 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?”

The Missouri House passed a similar resolution two years ago, but the measure did not get voted on in the Senate. This time around, the resolution was fast-tracked for approval by Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. Not only did Engler keep the Senate open several times to receive the resolution, but he also quickly voted it out of a committee he chairs on Wednesday.

Several senators who voted in favor of the resolution expressed frustration about how the raises for judges and other elected officials were paired together. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he would work toward a constitutional amendment that would separate the process.  Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City – an attorney who voted for the resolution – agreed the process needed to be altered.

“In the urban areas in particular, we are reaching a time when it is becoming more and more difficult to find qualified jurists to serve,” Justus said. “And so, I will continue to fight with both [Schaefer and Sen. Joan Bray] to make sure that we have those judges considered in pay raises with the rest of the state employees and not be tied to the raises of [legislators].”

Bray, D-St. Louis County, was the lone senator to vote against the resolution. She said there should be a high value on state employees – including those who serve in elected office or the judiciary. (Watch)

“My choice is to say that I believe that the industry of state workers at whatever level should be valued,” Bray said. “And I’m concerned as well in this particular year that this could be a prelude to rejecting [potential pay increases] for other state workers.”

Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget proposes a 3 percent raise for state employees. Had the resolution passed, the pay increase would have gone into effect for judges immediately.

Patrick McLarney, an attorney with Shook Hardy & Bacon in Kansas City, told the Senate Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics Committee on Wednesday it was unfair to separate judges from thousands of state workers who might get a pay increase.

“If there’s any consideration of that, I think everybody should be thrown into the same pot,” McLarney said.