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'Fix the Six' gains traction with state legislators

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It appears an effort headed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry has the ear of the General Assembly.

A little more than a month into the 2011 session, legislators have taken action on all six of the “fix the six” legislative priorities outlined by a coalition of business groups in the state. The initiative perhaps furthest along, Senate Bill 19, which freezes and ultimately ends the franchise tax on businesses with annual revenues of $10 million or more, passed in the Senate on Feb. 15.

The “fix the six” issues presented to legislators in January are the franchise-tax cap, employment law reform, workers’ compensation reform, tort reform, unemployment insurance reform and elimination of the minimum wage escalator.

According to Tracy King, lobbyist and vice president of governmental affairs for the Missouri Chamber, lawmakers in both the Missouri House and Senate like the targeted approach taken by the organizations that authored the priorities, those groups include the Missouri Grocers Association, Missouri Restaurant Association and the Association of General Contractors.

“We’re trying to reach every single (legislator). We have spoken to leadership in both the House and Senate, both minority and majority leadership, on all six of the issues,” King said. “We have already seen a great response.”

King said the franchise-tax bill aims to end double taxation on employers, and stop companies from being penalized for hiring new employees. The tax is based on a percentage of a company’s assets, and corporations already pay income taxes on their earned income in Missouri, she said.

The initiative caps franchise tax liabilities at the amount of each corporation’s tax liability for the 2010 tax year. New businesses would be capped at the amount of their corporation’s franchise tax liability for its first full year of existence. Then, beginning Jan. 1, 2012, the tax would be phased out in five years.

Kansas has been phasing out its corporate tax, and, according to King, Missouri’s move to do the same could pull employers from Illinois, which recently passed increases to its franchise tax.
King said Gov. Jay Nixon might sign the bill by the end of February.

A bill that would allow occupational diseases to be covered under the state-funded workers’ compensation program was passed in the House on Feb. 10 by a vote of 102 to 55. Legislative changes to coverage in 2005 effectively excluded occupational diseases, which lowered rates for employers, but has now created the potential for them to be used in civil lawsuits.

King said that bill is now in the Senate, and she is working with lawmakers to ensure the bill “stays clean” without significant changes.

The Missouri Association of Manufacturers discussed the six priorities at its Feb. 18 legislative forum at University Plaza Hotel. David Barklage of Cape Girardeau-based nonpartisan political consultancy Barklage Co. told forum attendees the economy has had a huge impact on state and national politics since 2008.

“We are in a time of economic stress, and that creates tsunamis in politics,” Barklage said, adding that 2008 and 2010 elections were tough for incumbents because voters wanted to send the message that the economy was the most important social issue.

House Speaker Pro-tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, encouraged individuals at the forum who support businesses in Missouri to have their voices heard in Jefferson City.

“We need your voices,” Schoeller told the manufacturers. “We need to bring back more power to employers and employees.”

While many legislators are actively promoting a pro-business legislative agenda, many also are aware that support for the fix-the-six agenda is not unanimous.

A Feb. 8 editorial published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the priorities being promoted by the Missouri chamber the “throw the workers under the bus” package. It pointed to a report from the Tax Foundation, a pro-business Washington, D.C.-based think tank, which listed Missouri as the 16th best business-tax climate in the nation, as a reason to question the need for sweeping reforms that could harm workers.

Lynne Bratcher, a trial attorney and partner of Kansas City firm Bratcher Gockel & Kingston LC that represents workers in discrimination cases, said she was one of around 100 people to converge Feb. 15 on the state Capitol to speak out against changes to the Missouri Human Rights Act. Changes to the law, which are supported by the fix-the-six agenda through HB 205 and SB 188, would put a cap on judgments found in discrimination suits.

“Missouri has been on the forefront of protecting workers from discrimination. And it’s not just African Americans or Hispanics, but recently, there were some cases in Kansas City where Caucasian workers were discriminated against. This is an attempt to set Missouri back in time and it’s really disturbing,” Bratcher said, adding that groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and AARP are opposed to changes in the law that has been on the books since 1962.

Chamber lobbyist King said plans already are under way to duplicate this year’s fix-the-six model.

“Rather than getting 10 legislative agendas from 10 different business associations or local chambers, (legislators) have been getting a one-page talker on six key issues. It’s easier when we have 77 freshmen … being able to focus on six,” King said. “We’ve already talked about starting the process again over in the summer.

“It may not be six. It may be ‘focus on five,’ or ‘eight is great.’”[[In-content Ad]]

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