Executives with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry felt like they were in an annual losing battle for the past decade. Each year, the same legislative issues brought forward and the same political stalemate.
Lawmakers returned to Jefferson City earlier this month for their five-month session, and there is hope legislation vetoed by former Gov. Jay Nixon will be passed quickly and smoothly with cooperation between the GOP-led legislature and Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.
The state chamber, as well as the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, have pinned their key business issues for 2017: labor, tort and education reforms, and infrastructure, workforce and economic development.
Spotlight on workers
Under the workforce banner, right-to-work legislation was approved in the 2015 session, but it was among Nixon’s vetoes.
“Frankly, it is an issue between big labor bosses and Missouri employees,” said Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri chamber. “Bottom line, employees should be given the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to be part of a union. Right-to-work gives them that right.”
Springfield chamber President Matt Morrow said while the state and local chambers function independently, the city chamber aligns with the state on this issue. In his role, Morrow said it’s not about unionization, but rather a competitive advantage.
“We meet 150 times a year with site selection consultants on the projects we are trying to bring to Springfield, and we repeatedly hear there are kind of two lists going: There’s the big list that includes everybody and there’s the short list that includes right-to-work states. Some companies work from the big list, but a lot of them only work from the short list. And that short list is getting longer,” he said.
“We want to make sure that we are not left out of the opportunity to compete for any project.”
In Greitens’ first State of the State address, he said since 2009, Nixon’s first year in the state capitol, the country recorded 10 percent private sector job growth.
“If we had grown just as fast as the rest of the country since ’09, we would have 120,000 more jobs in Missouri today,” he said.
Greitens claimed Missouri families also would have $2,400 more each year if income levels had risen at the same rate as the nation.
“That’s why we must join 27 other states and sign right-to-work,” he said.
Sponsored by Republican Dan Brown, Senate Bill 19 recently passed the Senate. If adopted, the right-to-work bill would bar employers from requiring employees to “become, remain, or refrain from becoming a member of a labor organization or pay dues required of labor organization members as a condition of employment.”
Also in the workforce arena, the state chamber seeks to halt prevailing wages for taxpayer-funded projects, and it advocates for employee paycheck protections.
“Paycheck protection ensures that union bosses do not spend employees’ dues without their consent on political activity they do not support,” Mehan said.
A 2015 Gallup survey of over 1,000 Missouri CEOs and business owners showed a growing concern for basic infrastructure, such as roads and bridges: Only 37 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Mehan said the issue is challenging.
“There is no clear path, and fundraising initiatives continue to be met with opposition in this state,” he said.
“Other states are doing innovative infrastructure advancements, and we cannot squander these assets because we are afraid of hard work.”
Employers surveyed by Gallup also cited weaknesses in the state’s ability to educate, attract and retain workers, with 66 percent of business owners dissatisfied.
To that end, Missouri chamber officials will advocate for education reforms focused on the accessibility of every child to a quality education as well as career and technical schooling. Initiatives also stem from work-based learning programs and expanded school choice opportunities.
As for economic development, the Missouri chamber will support high tech and rural efforts for job creation. Officials have committed to work toward additional funding for the Missouri Technology Corp., a public-private partnership created by the Missouri General Assembly to promote entrepreneurship and opportunities for high-tech companies. Rurally, the Missouri chamber supports the Show-Me Rural Jobs Act to improve opportunities for investment in rural manufacturing, ag-tech, plant sciences and high-tech sectors.
In the battle for business-friendly legislation, Morrow said Springfield businesses have boots on the ground in Jefferson City every week.
“We advocate for business. We try to stay in touch with leadership in the House and the Senate with our local delegation,” he said.