Springfield, MO

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MO chamber gains legal win, loss

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The “fix the six” legislative priorities developed and lobbied for by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry have been both a priority and a point of contention among lawmakers in Jefferson City.

On April 26, the coalition of business groups that aims to improve business in Missouri notched its first victory. Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation that would eliminate the corporate franchise tax by 2016, marking the first of the “fix the six” bills to become law.

Three days later, however, Nixon vetoed an employment-law reform bill, another of the six priorities.

The six legislative priorities outlined this year by the Missouri Chamber and its partners are the franchise tax cap, employment law reform, workers’ compensation reform, tort reform, unemployment insurance reform and elimination of the minimum-wage escalator.  

Civil rights debate
The employment-law reform bill, Senate Bill 188, would have changed state law in discrimination claims by raising the standard of proof in terminations to a “motivating factor” as opposed to a “contributing factor,” the current standard. Proponents said the bill would reduce frivolous lawsuits, while opponents claimed it would make discrimination cases in the state harder to prove.

Lynne Bratcher, a trial attorney and partner of Kansas City firm Bratcher, Gockel & Kingston LC, said she was pleased the governor vetoed the measure in front of the old courthouse in St. Louis, where the Dred Scott decision was handed down prior to the Civil War.

“Missouri has been at the forefront of protecting civil rights in recent time, and so I do think he was making a statement,” Bratcher said, noting she didn’t believe there were enough votes in the House to override the veto. “I think the law as it’s written is just fair. And I don’t think there’s any reason to make it more difficult for people to bring discrimination claims. It would have been a large step backward.”  

Missouri Chamber officials said the bill attempted to mirror Missouri’s employment law with the federal Civil Rights Act.

“This legislation would have brought Missouri law back in line with other states, reduced frivolous lawsuits, and insured more timely and fair resolution for legitimate discrimination cases,” Missouri Chamber CEO Dan Mehan said in a statement.

Calls to the chamber for comment were not returned by press time.

Springfield Rep. Melissa Leach, R-District 137, said she has tried to examine each of the ‘fix the six’ bills she’s come across as a member of the House work-force development and workplace safety committee to see if they were balancing the needs of the employees and employers, without tipping the scale too far in either direction. Leach said she did not vote for employment-law reform because she was not convinced that it wouldn’t take rights away from workers unnecessarily.

“As we look at the overall picture for Missouri employees, it is incumbent upon the legislature to ensure that basic rights of freedom are ensured in the workplace,” Leach said, adding that she didn’t feel the law would bring any new corporations to the state.

Traction gained
The repeal of the franchise tax did gain Leach’s support.

“What we need to do is take off some of these financial restrictions on business, so that they can then begin to hire,” Leach said. “We need to be willing to seriously look at tax reform for individuals as well as businesses in the state of Missouri, and this is a good first step.”

Opponents of the franchise tax repeal, such as the Missouri Budget Project, couched the governor’s veto as supporting the elimination of $85 million in tax revenue during the next five years at a time when the budget is facing a nearly $700 million shortfall.

On May 3, the House of Representatives voted 99-53 in favor of Senate Bill 8, which would allow occupational diseases to be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation system if signed into law. Supporters have stated that reforms passed in 2005 opened up Missouri businesses to unnecessary lawsuits by not covering occupational diseases.

Slow going
An extension of unemployment benefits was signed into law April 14 after a Republican filibuster fell short of stopping the bill from moving to the governor’s desk. The Missouri Chamber had promoted an extension of terms on bonds to 20 years from 10 years related to the repayment of $722 million in unemployment benefits to the federal government. House Bill 135, however, was sent to committee in January, and it still has yet to move forward.

The Missouri Chamber, which supported the unemployment extension, noted in a news release that the trade-off with the bill is that, going forward, Missouri would reduce the number of weeks it pays unemployment benefits to 20 weeks from 26 weeks.

With the change, Missouri employers could see as much as a 23 percent reduction in costs of unemployment insurance.

Leach said she ordinarily would not have supported accepting federal funds for unemployment insurance, but this was an important issue to her constituents in northwest Springfield to have that safety net available.

“What I’ve tried to do is look at the package and then study and learn as much as I possibly can to find that balance between businesses and employees,” she said.

Tort reform is another issue that looks like it may not be going anywhere fast. Leach said with issues such as congressional redistricting taking center stage, tort reform might be a casualty this session.

Eliminating the minimum-wage escalator is an issue that is still up in the air. Both a House and Senate version of the bill exists. The House bill passed through a rules committee before being placed on an informal calendar April 12. The Senate version hasn’t moved since it received a hearing in late February. In 2006, the state legislature passed a bill that tied the state’s minimum wage to the consumer price index. The “fix the six” proposal calls for tying the state minimum wage to the federal minimum wage. Both are currently at $7.25 per hour.[[In-content Ad]]


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