NIXON PROPOSES $26.13 BILLION STATE OPERATING BUDGET
During his annual State of the State address on Jan. 21, Gov. Jay Nixon said numerous reforms are needed to address racial and economic injustice in response to the civil unrest that followed last summer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer in Ferguson.
Nixon’s broad proposals included municipal court reform, updating the state law governing the use of deadly force to ensure it complies with current constitutional standards and the recruiting and training of more minority police officers. In addition he called for efforts to provide greater economic opportunity in low-income areas and the strengthening of struggling public school systems.
Nixon, a Democrat, also proposed a $26.13 billion state operating budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Nixon’s proposed budget calls for roughly $250 million less in spending than the Republican-controlled General Assembly authorized when it passed the FY 2015 budget last spring. However, because the legislature passed an unbalanced budget last year, Nixon was forced to reduce actual expenditures to put it in balance. As a result, the proposed FY 2016 budget calls for a modest increase in what the state is expected to actually spend during FY 2015.
Among the spending increases Nixon calls for is an additional $50 million in basic state aid for local public school districts, plus another $12 million for public colleges and universities. The proposed budget includes no pay raises for state employees, who rank last in the nation in average pay for state workers.
In the wake voters’ rejection of a dedicated transportation sales tax in August and the state Department of Transportation’s claim that it soon will run out of sufficient funding to fully maintain the 34,000-mile state highway system, Nixon said lawmakers should discuss increasing the state’s 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. The tax was last raised in 1996 and is among the lowest in the nation. He also suggested lawmakers consider using tolls to fund a long-overdue reconstruction of Interstate 70 from Kansas City to St. Louis.
For the third straight year, Nixon urged lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility in Missouri to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which would bring an additional $2 billion a year in federal health care spending to the state. Nixon said many Missouri hospitals, especially in rural areas, are eliminating jobs since under the federal Affordable Care Act the increased Medicaid spending was supposed to offset cuts in other federal health care spending. As a result of the legislature’s refusal act, Missouri hospitals are absorbing the cuts without receiving the expected infusion of Medicaid dollars.
HOUSE VOTES TO REJECT PAY HIKES FOR ELECTED OFFICIALS
The House of Representatives voted 133-15-10 on Jan. 20 in favor of a resolution that would reject pay increases for lawmakers, statewide elected officials and judges recommended by the State Salary Commission. Under the Missouri Constitution, the Senate must also pass the rejection resolution, HCR 4, before Feb. 1 or the pay hikes will automatically take effect.
The Salary Commission recommends state senators and representatives receive a $2,000 raise with the start of the 2016 fiscal year on July 1 and another $2,000 raise in FY 2107. Legislative pay would go from the current level of $35,915 a year to $39,915 once both increases are implemented, for a two-year increase of about 11 percent.
The commission calls for the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor and state treasurer to each receive an 8-percent pay raise in FY 2016 and another 8-percent raise in FY 2017. Because the lieutenant governor’s primary duty is to preside over the Senate, the commission decided a salary boost for the office should receive the 11-percent pay hike given to lawmakers rather than the more generous two-year bump of more than 16 percent granted to other statewide elected officials.
Because state judges recently received substantial pay hikes ranging from $17,000 a year for associate circuit judges to $21,000 a year for Supreme Court judges, the commission recommended that judges receive just 1 percent raises in FY 2016, with an additional raise possible in FY 2017 but not yet determined.
CHIEF JUSTICE SAYS MORE SCRUTINY OF MUNY COURTS NEEDED
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Rhodes Russell on Jan. 22 said the events in Ferguson highlighted the need to review the state’s municipal courts in order to guard against abuses and protect the constitutional rights of defendants. Russell made her comments during the annual State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly.
“From a local municipal division to the state Supreme Court, Missouri’s courts should be open and accessible to all,” Russell said. “Courts should primarily exist to help people resolve their legal disputes. If they serve, instead, as revenue generators for the municipality that selects and pays the court staff and judges, this creates at least the perception, if not a reality, of diminished judicial impartiality.”
In response to complaints about abuses, including the jailing of defendants who cannot afford to pay court fines, the Supreme Court last month instituted a rule that requires municipal judges to work out payment plans with poor defendants.
MISSOURI’S UNEMPLOYMENT RATE CONTINUES TO DROP
Missouri’s unemployment rate continues to decline, according to the latest figures from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. During December, the state’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate was 5.4 percent, its lowest rate since April 2008. For the year, Missouri added roughly 47,000 jobs in 2014.