Missouri’s top lawmaker opened the 2023 legislative session Wednesday by proclaiming that the state’s massive budget surplus should translate into more tax cuts.
House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, noted that Missouri lawmakers approved a nearly $800 million tax cut in September. But with a projected state budget surplus of $6 billion, Plocher believes “there is more room to return money to Missouri taxpayers.”
While his speech Wednesday to the Missouri House didn’t delve into details of any tax cut plan, its inclusion in his opening day address signals the issue’s importance to the new speaker. And speaking to reporters later in the day, Plocher said he’s open to multiple ideas to reduce the tax burden on Missourians, from income tax cuts to trimming the stales tax to changes in personal property tax.
“Reducing our tax burden will make Missouri even more competitive to recruit a talented workforce, to build prosperous communities, grow small businesses and create more opportunities for all,” he said.
In addition to tax cuts, Plocher also vowed to take steps to increase teacher pay.
Since 2010, the minimum starting pay for a teacher in Missouri has been $25,000. Lawmakers added $21.8 million to this year’s budget to fund a grant program to raise base pay to $38,000. About 12% of the state’s 70,400 teachers make less than that amount, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education estimates.
School districts had to provide 30% of the cost to be eligible. If the state mandates a minimum pay, it must fund it. Paterson said he’s ready for that commitment.
In October, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission made raising the minimum salary to $38,000 its top recommendation among nine proposals to alleviate the teacher shortage being felt by rural and urban districts alike.
Shortages are particularly acute for elementary, early childhood and special education, as well as in specific subjects and high-need schools.
“For too long our teachers have been compensated by an out-of-date pay scale. It’s a flawed system that rewards time served instead of output and innovation,” Plocher said Wednesday. “Teaching is difficult and our state needs to reward teachers for success so our children have access, both to great teachers and choices for education.”
Beyond increasing teacher pay, Plocher hinted at a legislative push to regulate school curriculum, saying parents should have a stronger voice as it relates to the substance of what is taught to their kids each day.”
Among the bills filed pertaining to school curriculum include bans on what is known as “critical race theory” and a “Parents Bill of Rights” that would allow parents to object to and opt out of “any instructional materials” they find objectionable.
In a portion of the speech addressing violent crime, Plocher took a shot at local leaders in Kansas City and St. Louis — though not by name — in saying that many have “lost trust in dysfunctional local governments where some officials refuse to prosecute violent offenders.”
“We cannot be bystanders as unchecked crime causes the systematic destruction of our proud state,” Plocher said. “There is no excuse for inaction.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, spoke on the session’s opening day against a GOP-backed plan to change the initiative petition process to make it harder to amend the constitution.
“Any attempt to strip people of their power to propose and enact laws is antithetical to democracy,” Quade said.
She also noted that while major disagreements exist between her party and the Republicans —notably over abortion rights and gun safety — there are also major areas where they are on the same page, echoing Plocher’s call that a priority of the 2023 session should be raising teacher pay and improving access to childcare.
“We can agree that boosting teacher pay has to happen,” she said, “and that finding quality and affordable childcare has to be a priority to address our workforce issues and to ensure that our kids start off with the support that they need.”
Both the House and the state Senate kicked off the 2023 legislative session at noon. The session ends at 6 p.m. on May 12.
In a 10-minute speech in the Senate, new President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, asked members to consider their place in history and to reject the factional splits that undermined the chamber’s work in 2022.
“We must care more about the policy than we do the personality,” Rowden said. “We must work toward retiring revenge, and not recycling it. And we must break the cycle of governing by fear and half truths.”
The policies he wants the Senate to address, Rowden said, would provide more health care coverage to new mothers, continue benefit programs as family income increases to provide a smooth transition off public assistance, make it harder to amend the constitution and overhaul education.
In an interview last month with The Independent, Rowden said the ideas he would include in his opening-day address reflect “broad consensus” in the Republican caucus.
He asked senators to pass Sen. Elaine Gannon’s bill extending Medicaid services to mothers for a year after delivery. The coverage currently ends 60 days after a woman gives birth. The bill fell victim to factional fighting last year.
And Rowden said he wants to pass Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman’s bill to continue benefits when a family’s income rises.
“Being pro-life means standing for Missouri’s vulnerable populations,” Rowden said.
Rowden made changing education a two-year project for the Senate. Public schools are struggling with a teacher shortage, and a state commission recommended nine steps, including much higher minimum salaries. Other lawmakers are worried more districts will move to a four-day week, which will aggravate the issues surrounding child care availability.
The education changes must “redefine” student and school success, Rowden said.
“In Missouri, world-class schools should be treated and funded like world-class schools,” he said. “World-class teachers should be paid like world-class teachers.”
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said in a press release that Missourians want “commonsense solutions to the problems facing our state. People are tired of the extremist rhetoric and chaotic partisanship that puts special interests ahead of working families.”
Democrats in the Senate will prioritize teacher pay increases, solutions to a childcare shortage and expanding access to reproductive healthcare.
The party is also focused on gun safety, Rizzo said.
“Missouri is in the middle of a gun violence epidemic,” he said, “we can fix that by giving police the tools they need to stop killers when there are clear red flags. Missouri has real problems, and Democrats are here to offer real solutions.”