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Chambers tab education, workforce as priorities

Legislative Outlook

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As the 100th state legislative session has commenced, business and industry leaders are optimistic that the high-priority issues in southwest Missouri could get support in Jefferson City over the next four months.

That’s due, in part, to key state leadership’s roots in the Springfield area – Gov. Mike Parson, of Bolivar, and Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr, of Springfield.

“We’re really excited about the leadership from southwest Missouri that’s in place,” said Emily Denniston, vice president of governmental affairs for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

In addition, Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, is the minority leader in the House of Representatives. Haahr, 36, and Quade, 33, are the first millennials to lead a GOP or Democratic caucus in state history, according to Trevor Fox, communications director for the Missouri House of Representatives.

“I think a lot of people are excited and looking forward to the ideas they’re going to bring to the table, especially in the House,” said Matt Panik, vice president of governmental affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Panik said Parson has been a vocal advocate for bolstering the state’s workforce development efforts since taking office in June 2018. His predecessor, Eric Greitens, resigned from office in the wake of a sex scandal.

Parson is expected to unpack his plan for workforce development in his Jan. 16 State of the State Address.

“We’re certainly hopeful we can make some strides there, whether it be education funding, getting people back into the workforce,” Panik said of the session that began Jan. 9 and concludes May 17. “Obviously, unemployment is at historically low numbers, but we want to make sure people are prepared for those jobs five, 10 years down the road.”

Missouri’s current unemployment rate is 3 percent, its lowest point since 1976, according to the state Department of Economic Development.

Denniston said workforce development and education work hand-in-hand when it comes to training opportunities and filling the talent pipeline.

The chamber also is in support of significant budgetary requests from Missouri State University and Ozarks Technical Community College, she said. MSU is seeking additional funds to train more nurses in southwest Missouri, while OTC has requested a $10 million appropriation to fund the initial development of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology.

Center of attention
The state’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education in December ranked the OTC project as the No. 1 capital funding priority for fiscal 2020. It recommends $5 million of state funds this year for the center.

“We feel like we have a really good shot of getting those dollars,” said OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon. “I would expect that we’d get the $5 million this year.”

To meet the $10 million request, OTC officials expect they’ll have to request a second round of $5 million next year.

OTC intends to open the center, which has an estimated $20 million price tag, in 2022 on the east side of its Chestnut Expressway campus.

Higdon said the groundbreaking likely wouldn’t come until next year. The school currently is advertising for an executive director for the center.

Denniston said OTC’s manufacturing center is one of the topics chamber staff will be promoting to politicians in the state Capitol on a weekly basis.

“We feel like it can be a game-changer for the region and the state,” she said.

Haahr agreed in a recent Springfield Business Journal interview.

“That’s something no one in Missouri has,” he said. “But in other states, like the Carolinas, every community college in the state has an advanced manufacturing center. They’re turning out people that can do robotics and 3D printing, and they can go to work the next day after they get their certificate. That’s something OTC wants to be on the forefront of.”

Making shorter longer
While bolstering the health of educational opportunities is a priority for some, the health insurance industry has local representatives hopeful this session can result in a change to short-term health policies.

Andrea Croley, co-owner of Croley Insurance and Financial Inc., and Jeff Kennedy, employee benefits specialist with Nixon & Lindstrom Insurance, are advocating for longer short-term policies than the state’s current six-month maximum.

Croley and Kennedy are representatives of the southwest Missouri chapter of the National Association of Health Underwriters, which held a Jan. 4 meeting in Springfield. State Reps. Craig Fishel, John Black, Steve Helms and Curtis Trent were in attendance.

Croley said NAHU wants to see the short-term policy match the federal short-term policy, which is up to 364 days. Short-term policies can serve as temporary or gap coverage and have lower premiums but don’t provide as much coverage as those under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“In the short run, extending the short-term policies will provide an option to those people that are looking at that insurance gap coverage,” Kennedy said.

Regarding the current insurance industry, Croley said there’s agreement by politicians that people with pre-existing conditions should be covered.

However, disagreement comes down to determining the best plans – a discussion she and Kennedy hope will be a priority this session.

“We both agree that cost is a huge factor. But we’ve got to have competition in the marketplace,” Croley said, in reference to Ambetter Health, which is now the lone insurance carrier for government-sponsored health coverage in the Springfield area.

Croley and Kennedy said they would be among the NAHU delegates visiting Washington, D.C., in February to visit with Missouri elected officials and in Jefferson City in March to talk with House and Senate officials.

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