Missouri House seeks conference on Senate budget changes

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri House asked for a conference on a series of budget bills Wednesday, including Senate changes to the House's appropriations for education.

Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said the request for conference was a typical procedure the committee had followed in years past.

Smith said he was calling for conference because the Senate had elected to spend $1 billion more than the House had, and the "changes are substantial."

Smith also said it was important to be able to go through the entire budget in detail to understand all the changes the Senate had made, telling the House he needed to "make sure we understand it before we agree to it."

The Senate changes to the budget included a reinstatement of the governor's teacher pay plan, including an increase in its funding, full funding for transportation, and retention of the House's funding for Career Ladder.

The governor proposed spending more than $21 million in lottery proceeds to provide funding for a voluntary grant program that would supplement teachers' salaries under $38,000 and bring them up to that amount. Districts could opt in and the state would provide 70 percent of the needed funds, while the school district would be responsible for the other 30 percent.

Smith said the House Budget Committee had removed the governor's teacher pay plan from the budget and redirected its funds to Career Ladder, a program that provides incentive pay for teachers that perform extra duties, such as supervising a club or organization.

Responding to an inquiry from Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, Smith said the governor's teacher pay plan was a departure from how the Legislature normally deals with teacher salaries. While the state does set a minimum teacher salary, Smith said it is unusual for the General Assembly to appropriate funds for teacher salaries because setting those salaries is typically left in the hands of each school district.

Smith had said in committee he saw issues with the governor's plan in that it created wage compression, meaning veteran teachers could potentially make similar wages to new teachers.

Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, added in previous years, minimum teacher pay had been increased by the state in small increments over time.

"The problem with this one is we're jumping from 25,000 to 38,000 ... what does that do to those small schools that are struggling to meet their salary requirements now?" he asked.

Smith said the state subsidy is helpful in alleviating the burden on local districts, but is a "double- edged sword" because it creates wage compression, competition between districts that do and do not opt in and uncertainty for local districts about whether the General Assembly will continue to fund the program.

"If you are a local school board and you raise 20 teachers' starting pays in excess of $10,000 a piece, and the General Assembly comes back next year and says, 'Well, we're not going to pay for that anymore,' then are you going to be able to reduce those teacher salaries? No, you're going to have to find that money somewhere else," Smith said.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said he didn't buy that argument.

"I don't think it's quite fair to say, 'Well, if we do this, schools are taking a risk because we might not continue to fund it in the future.' I mean, honestly, that's true of all of the funding they get," Merideth said, adding even the foundation formula for funding education was never a guarantee.

However, Merideth encouraged members to support the motion for conference.