JEFFERSON CITY • John White hasn't received a raise in four years.
A group home supervisor for developmentally disabled individuals in southeast Missouri, White makes about $24,000 a year from the state of Missouri.
"It's been frustrating," he said. "We all could use a little bit extra these days."
Most of Missouri's state employees, including White, will see a slight bump in pay starting July 1 — their first pay raise since 2008.
The increase, approved by the Missouri Legislature in the budget that begins July 1, will provide 2 percent increases to the 54,500 public employees who make less than $70,000 a year.
"It's a start," said White, 49. "It's definitely deserved."
The pay hike comes with a $45.5 million price tag, with nearly half of that coming from the state's general revenue. State lawmakers said it was worth it, even as they considered cuts to programs for needy families and health care for the blind.
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The state's status as last in the country in state worker pay and election-year politics appeared to be driving factors.
Jeff Mazur, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' Council 72, said lawmakers realized the impact stagnant pay was having on public employees.
"They couldn't brush the issue under the rug any longer," he said. "It had gone on too far and too long."
Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City who served on a Missouri committee tasked with reviewing state worker pay, said many states are in a similar situation — trying to address going years without increases.
"We have to live within our budget, but at some point in time you manage down as much as you can," he said during one debate over the pay raises. "It's time we recognize our state workers after all of these years."
According to 2010 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri's $36,985 average yearly salary for state workers ranks last in the country — less than West Virginia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Arkansas, which rounded out the bottom five.
The increase, which equals about $740 a year for an employee making $36,985, will help boost the state closer to the average pay mark for West Virginia and Mississippi.
"It doesn't move them out of that last-place spot, but it does help move us closer," Mazur said.
Pay will still lag a couple thousand dollars behind the averages for South Carolina and Arkansas, and state workers in Kansas and Illinois will continue to make significantly higher than their counterparts here.
"It's not enough, but in this budget climate, that's probably the most we could have gotten," said Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City. "We've got to keep moving the ball toward higher salaries."
Like Missouri leaders, officials from states such as Louisiana, Virginia and Delaware have been discussing state employee pay increases, even if they could lead to cuts elsewhere.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, often referred to the state's prison workers, employees at veterans homes and mental facilities, and other low-wage jobs in the push for raises this year.
"For the people doing the tough jobs — there are fewer of them doing more work — they deserve it," he said.
White, who is divorced, has 10 children ranging in age from 10 to 30.
At work, he takes care of seven people with mental disabilities. It requires everything from bathing to cooking for them.
"We're everything — cooks, doctors, physical therapists," he said. "We take care of them as we would our own children."
White has worked for the state since December 2003. He knows he could probably make more in another state or even in the private sector.
"We stick to it and do the best we can to make sure that people are taken care of," he said.
A report last year from the Economic Policy Institute found that Missouri's state workers make an average 16 percent less than someone in the private sector doing the same job and working the same schedule.
The pay raise — which found support among Democrats and Republicans — passed the House with little dissent, but several senators voiced concern when the budget came before their chamber.
"When you vote a raise through, it's not a one-time expenditure," said Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield.
He also disagreed with the proposal's salary cap. About 1,800 state workers who make more than $70,000 a year who would have received increases under Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's pay raise proposal have been excluded under the budget that passed the Legislature.
"I'm not saying the people on the lower levels don't work hard, but by doing it the way that we're doing it, you're telling people that it doesn't matter if you work hard to get a better job with better pay," Purgason said.
With the cap, state department directors don't qualify for raises, but many of their employees do. The limit also will prevent some of the highest-paid state employees — including doctors and attorneys — from getting raises.
Physicians who work for the Department of Mental Health likely won't qualify, but the direct care workers, nurses, security aids and social workers there will.
In the attorney general's office, at least 25 assistant attorneys general make above the $70,000 limit, including three who make just 8 cents more than the threshold, state employee salary data show. Their co-workers with the same title who fall just under the limit will get raises.
Nine people in Nixon's office make too much to qualify for the raises, including his chief of staff, director of policy and press secretary, according to the salary data.
Meanwhile, many of state lawmakers' staffers make less than $70,000 and will qualify, records show.
Mazur said addressing pay inequities will help the state attract quality employees and retain the ones it has.
Like Kehoe, Barnes also served on the committee to review state worker pay last year. He said that workers face other issues, including the fact that they are taking home less pay because of changes to their state pensions and health insurance.
"Obviously there's a long-term structural issue that needs to be dealt with," Mazur said.
The Legislature extended the pay review committee, allowing it to work through December 2014.