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story.lead_photo.caption Liv Paggiarino/News TribuneRep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, stands in the back of the gallery looking out onto the Senate floor Wednesday as he listens to Gov. Mike Parson's State of the State Address at the Missouri state Capitol. A crowd that included Parson's cabinet, state representatives, special guests and media was gathered in the senate gallery to watch the speech. The speech was livestreamed and also projected on a screen in the Capitol Rotunda, which had been turned into an "overflow" area to promote social distancing.

Local legislators found a lot to like about Gov. Mike Parson's 2021 State of the State Address.

Now in his third year in the Missouri Senate, Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, has been a champion for increasing state employee pay ever since he was in the House.

Cole County is home to thousands of Missouri state employees, who are among the lowest-paid employees by position in the nation.

Bernskoetter praised Parson's work in economic development but described his efforts to raise employees' pay as the best thing for the state.

During budget briefings before the address, members of Parson's administration laid out some details about how they can improve pay.

The governor's budget asks for $23.5 million for a 2.5 percent pay increase for state employees, to help them keep pace with Missouri's labor market. The increase is intended to not only ease the burden on current employees but to improve recruitment and retention. The increase is to go into effect in January 2022.

The proposed budget sets aside $5.3 million for performance incentives. The incentives are for the "top 10 percent of state employees in 15 departments to motivate 'above and beyond' performance, promote continuous improvement and improve accountability." Incentives of up to 5 percent may be available, and will be capped at $2,500 per qualifying employee. This, too, would begin in January 2022.

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The budget designates $1.1 million to support a statewide approach to talent management and infrastructure, providing human resource functions to state government that reduce costs and improve operational effectiveness, according to the governor's office.

The budget also tackles difficulty recruiting and retaining employees in the Department of Corrections with a $2.9 million Corrections Recruitment Pay Plan. The plan provides additional pay increases for high-turnover and difficult-to-recruit positions. Without being specific, staff said there are several job classes that are difficult to recruit.

Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, said she was pleased to see Parson maintaining a focus on his priorities during Wednesday's address.

Walsh serves as a member of the House's Budget Committee. She said elements of Parson's address that stood out to her as they pertain to the state's budgeting work included his remarks on law enforcement and the $25 million in funding for the transportation cost-share program his administration established in 2019.

Another element that jumped out at her was Parson's focus on investing in K-12 education.

Altogether, Walsh said, addresses like this one can help to energize a body of legislators and residents for the work ahead.

"It's always exciting to start a new year, the energy every time there's a new legislature is kind of almost like a fresh start to a new term," Walsh said. "I think that kind of has a trickle-down effect, in a way, for Missourians."

"His leadership makes me proud," said Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville. "He was thoughtful."

Veit pointed out Missouri has made progress on state employee pay and other key issues despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, he warned that to continue progressing is going to take hard work.

Early childhood development and early childhood education were major components of the governor's address, Veit said.

The governor is creating the "Office of Childhood." The new office, the governor said, would be a critical component to the future success of Missourians for generations.

"We have to get with it or we're going to pay the piper later," he said.

And the governor's push for reductions in education regulation and offering alternative educational opportunities are important.

Proven programs, such as Career Ready 101, give students the chance to prepare for the workforce. On the other hand, the A+ scholarship program has helped thousands of students attend college. Parson called for an additional $13 million for the program in his budget.

"The mood he conveyed was — to keep a positive attitude," Veit said.

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Rep. Willard Haley, R-Eldon, echoed other local lawmakers' comments on education funding.

Haley said Parson "cares deeply" about issues like education; there's a lot of demand on the state's budget right now, but Haley said he likes to see that Parson is such a strong supporter of education funding regardless.

A member of the House of Representatives' Workforce Development Committee, Haley also said he was glad to see workforce development as a key component of the address.

"That's one of my passions, and I care deeply about that with my background in career and technical education," Haley said.

Through workforce development, Haley said, Missouri can help a wider range of people who can contribute to a district in the long-term.

Haley said Parson did a good job of representing a broad swath of Missouri's residents that have been affected by the challenges from the past year.

"We're in a difficult time, and we have to face many things head-on," Haley said. "We're experiencing things that we never dreamed we'd have to experience. I think the governor did a very excellent job of addressing many of the issues that we have going on."

Veit said he was pleased to see the governor's budget invests in drug abuse care and rehabilitation sites — places where people may get treatment.

Another concern is that health care providers face COVID-19 liability, Parson said. So, he's asking for legislation to protect them.

It's a good idea, Bernskoetter said.

COVID-19 treatments have evolved for a year, Veit said. And health care workers are struggling to save lives.

"You can't have people second-guessing (health care workers)," he continued. "Nobody knows what 'ordinary care' is. I strongly agree we need COVID liability addressed."

The so-called Wayfair tax was another issue local lawmakers felt strongly about. Missouri is one of only two states that doesn't require collection of sales taxes from out-of-state retailers who don't have brick-and-mortar stores within its borders (the Wayfair tax). Florida is the other state.

It's an issue that's been debated in the Legislature for years, Bernskoetter said.

"We always get deep in the woods on Wayfair," he said. "We just never seem to get things done."

Bernskoetter said the community should be proud of another one of the points Parson made.

Receiving state approval, last week, Lincoln University began offering a police academy — the first at a Historically Black College and University.

Parson recognized Lincoln University Police Chief Gary Hill, who he said plays a critical role in the safety of the local community.

"At a time when law enforcement agencies are struggling to recruit officers, especially minority officers, this new training academy is a major step in the right direction," Parson said.

Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, said he was grateful for Parson's discussion on infrastructure.

"What (the Missouri Department of Transportation) has done with financing some bridge projects over the last couple years with very low interest rates is just smart government" Fitzwater said. "Passing a big infrastructure bill to build out hundreds of bridges and projects around the state, I think, was crucial, and it was perfect timing with rates as low as they are."

Within his speech, Parson pointed out that the state has repaired or replaced more than 100 bridges through its "Focus on Bridges" program in just more than a year. When the program is complete, 250 bridges will have been repaired or replaced.

This year, the state will begin three massive infrastructure projects, each of which alone would have been the largest project the Missouri Department of Transportation has taken on in a decade — the Buck O'Neal Bridge in Kansas City, the Interstate-270 Project in North County St. Louis, and the new Rocheport Bridge on I-70.

Fitzwater said he agreed with Parson's concerns over budgeting for the MO HealthNet (Medicaid) expansion passed by Missouri voters last year, calling it "maybe the biggest discussion we have this year, outside of pandemic-related issues." Making sure the program is sustainable long-term will be one of the goals, Fitzwater said.

Another issue of particular interest to Fitzwater's district, he said, was broadband expansion. He said broadband will be of great help to Callaway County, and could ensure every student undergoing virtual learning has sufficient access, as do the other individuals and businesses dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

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