JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House took up one of its favorite questions again last week: What did voters really mean?


Rep. Tim Remole, R-Excello, sparked the latest round Thursday with a bill letting private and religious schools opt out of voter-approved minimum wage increases.


A ballot initiative passed in 2018 requires those all non-public employers, including private schools, to bump minimum pay by 85 cents per hour each year until they’re at $12 per hour in 2023.


Public schools, like other government employers, are exempt. The current minimum wage is $9.45 per hour.


Republicans say private schools should be exempt, too, or they and their students are going to be squeezed by rising costs for labor and tuition.


“Some of these families have reached out to me,” Remole said. “They’re having to choose now. They may have to take away their kids’ choice to go to a private school because they can’t afford it.”


Democrats, on the other hand, attacked the bill as an insult to workers and voters alike.


Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City, pointed out that 62 percent of voters statewide approved the raises in 2018 and said that included majorities in 145 of the 163 House districts, including Remole’s.


Remole represents voters in Randolph, Linn and Macon counties.


“I really do believe Missourians care about low-wage workers,” she said, “and that’s why they said yes to this.”


But Republicans said they didn’t think voters meant to say yes to hurting private schools — especially since they exempted public schools from the higher wages.


Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Whitewater, said he would have voted no if he had known “(the initiative) was going to penalize the private schools.”


“All this is doing is creating a level playing field,” he said.


Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, had a similar take.


He said he thinks "voters had no idea" that Christian private schools would be affected.


Republicans also argued that many of the workers at private schools are retirees working for a cause they believe in and don't need higher wages to support families as some low-wage workers do.


Democrats could only see a pay cut, though, and they didn't let up on the idea that Republicans were ignoring voters.


“I just don't understand how legislators can say they're not smart enough to know what they voted for and yet they voted for you,” Rep. Sara Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, said.


The bill passed the House 94-53, with a handful of Republicans joining the Democratic minority in voting ‘no.’


Every lawmaker from Greene County save House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, voted in favor of the bill.


The legislation is House Bill 1559.


Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at ahuguelet@news-leader.com.