State legislation that affects local business was one of the topics presented at a Business Women First luncheon held Tuesday at the Ozarks Small Business Incubator in West Plains with keynote speaker Karla Eslinger, 33rd District Missouri state senator.
The meeting was attended by about 25 local and area stakeholders representing business, education and government.
Eslinger in her talk emphasized the impact of economic success to the area, reminding the audience that the Ozarks in general — and some counties in her district — are among the poorest in the nation. To that end, she noted, the health and well-being of families living in the area should be the first consideration when introducing legislation impacting the economy.
"The most important work we do is for the family, that's the reason for what we do," she said, after introducing herself as the matriarch of a family that has lived in the area for many years and whose members are educators, including her daughters and a son-in-law, Justin Gilmore, Gainesville Schools superintendent.
Eslinger herself was a Gainesville High School graduate, earned a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from the University of Missouri-Columbia and was a superintendent in Ava and West Plains during her education career.
She is a longtime resident of Wasola in northern Ozark County, with husband David, and is the chair of the Senate Committee on Governmental Accountability and the vice-chair on Economic Development and Tax Policy. She also serves on three other Senate committees: Appropriations; Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy, and the Environment; and Gubernatorial Appointments.
One thing that is very much needed, and has been the subject of decades worth of efforts to bring to fruition, Eslinger pointed out, is an improved highway corridor from Rolla into northern Arkansas that could attract commerce otherwise lost along other routes, including logging and tourism.
Eslinger said she has been working on getting a four-lane road project started on that corridor, noting local officials have been requesting such an improvement for many years. A $2 million environmental study has been passed as the first phase. The initiative would be followed by studies and input from other entities, including the Missouri Department of Transportation and county planners.
An omnibus agriculture bill has also been passed to put funding into marketing Missouri hardwoods from the area, along with a reduction in taxes to encourage land sales to first-generation farmers to help small family farmers get a start in that industry.
She and other legislators have also been working to improve employment in the area by supporting vocational training programs, including $17 million for a new technology center in Reeds Spring in Stone County, she said.
Other legislative priorities in the works to support families includes FosterAdopt Connect, an organization that assists Missourians with the child foster care and adoption process; and affordable childcare through support of preschool programs in public schools. Eslinger cited a sizable loss of women in the workforce after the Covid-19 pandemic, when some women chose not to return to jobs after the pandemic ended, noting a lack of affordable childcare.
A cap that had been in place restricting funding of preschool services in K-12 districts at 4% of students receiving free and reduced lunches has been removed, now allowing all students that meet the free and reduced household income guidelines to qualify. That rate is at about 60% of students in the 33rd district, Eslinger reminded, and would provide assistance to the area's lowest wage earners. The 33rd District includes Howell, Ozark, Douglas, Shannon, Texas, Shannon, Stone and Taney counties.
Regarding education, she said, Missouri has lost some teachers to the state of Arkansas due to lack of competitive wages, but that has improved with a recent raise in minimum salary for Missouri teachers to about $38,000, with a 70% reimbursement to districts from the state for salary increases.
The next Business Women First meeting, to be held 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 29 at OzSBI, 408 Washington Ave., will focus on the topic of time management. Cost is $25 to attend and includes lunch.