The 2023 state legislative session, which commenced Jan. 4, has officials with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry eager to see how its high-priority goals can be addressed in Jefferson City this year.
Workforce development and tort reform are chief areas of interest for the chambers of commerce, with the organizations calling for legislative action on issues including workers’ compensation reform and public safety investments.
Springfield chamber President Matt Morrow said the organization compiles an annual legislative agenda with the approval of its board of directors. Morrow said members of the local chamber staff are at the Missouri Capitol every week of the legislative session to check in with lawmakers and keep tabs on progress of bills.
“We want to make sure when opportunities come to advance one or more of these priorities that our team is aware of it and our members are aware of it,” he said, adding some priorities emerge based on conversations with lawmakers.
Brian Hammons, president and CEO of Hammons Products Co. and the Springfield chamber’s chair-elect for 2023, said workforce development rates high on his list. One example he cited was support for the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant last year. The financial aid program for adults aimed at addressing employment needs was extended beyond a scheduled 2022 sunset through legislation sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, and added $4.7 million in funding, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
“For a lot of employers, getting enough skilled workers in the right positions is a very important priority,” Hammons said.
Morrow stressed the need for lawmakers to continue support for Missouri One Start, a training program through the state Department of Economic Development that helps businesses create jobs and facility expansions through payroll withholdings or tax credits. The amount of funding for the program in the state budget is still unknown, as Gov. Mike Parson is expected to deliver his State of the State address on Jan. 18.
“These are programs that employers rely on to help them train their workforce specifically for the work that they need in their workplaces,” Morrow said. “If they can’t count on that, then we’re at a disadvantage trying to compete for those businesses here in Missouri versus other states.”
Workforce investment is on the minds of most business leaders statewide, according to a poll recently released by the Missouri chamber. The poll, conducted by research firm CHS and Associates, surveyed more than 600 CEOs and business leaders, representing every region of the state and varying business sizes.
According to the poll, nearly half of all businesses surveyed plan to increase their workforce in 2023, while 38% expect the employee count to remain around the same level. Roughly 12% expect a workforce decrease.
More than 80% say their companies plan to make business investments in the upcoming year, with only 14% planning none.
Missouri chamber President Dan Mehan said the poll also indicated growing attention from business leaders about public safety.
Two-thirds of employers polled said the rising crime rate in Missouri is impacting the state’s economic competitiveness. Most employers, 60%, said public safety and crime were growing issues, while 24% of business leaders said they were currently their top concern.
“We believe first of all we need to attract more people to law enforcement, whether that’s local police departments or state police,” Mehan said, adding more funding for mental health services also is a priority.
Reducing gun violence is a top concern for the city of Springfield, based on City Council’s legislative priorities. In 2020, Missouri was ranked fourth for firearm mortality; by comparison, the state was ranked 17th in 2005, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Missouri was fifth for homicides per 100,000 persons in 2020.
Springfield City Manager Jason Gage said the city communicates its priorities annually to state and federal lawmakers.
The city also is requesting legislation with statewide impact not be used to address localized concerns. This is in response to House Bill 1662, passed in 2022 as an omnibus bill at the end of the session, according to city officials. It requires a city to limit commercial activity in residential areas, aside from some narrowly applied health and safety guidelines and some vague language about traffic, Gage said, noting the city is seeking to change the law statewide.
Another city priority is support of legislation allowing land banks to accept property through the judicial tax sale system without its prior tax obligations. Local officials also want Springfield to be added to the list of cities permitted to form a land bank.
A 2021 study by economic research firm John Dunham & Associates found that if Missouri enacted certain tort reforms, the savings to residents and businesses of the state would be more than $1.7 billion, according to a state chamber news release. Mehan said residents are in effect paying a “tort tax” of $279 per person. According to this study, the savings from reforming Missouri’s tort system could support nearly 21,000 additional jobs and roughly $3.4 billion in increased economic activity.
Mehan said modifying Missouri’s statute of limitations in certain civil cases is a high priority, as the organization recommends shortening the statute of limitations for personal injury cases to two years from five years. Currently, 47 states have shorter time limits than Missouri, including all eight of its bordering states, chamber officials say.
Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield, has filed House Bill 272, seeking to reduce the statute of limitations to two years. Mehan said Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, has filed a similar bill in the Senate.
Riley said the current five-year length allows people to sit on their claims for too long, which can lead to case witnesses who are no longer able to be found or whose memories of the incident fade over time.
“That’s one of the big issues for tort reform and making sure our state’s legal climate is more fair for our businesses, especially,” he said. “There’s a lot of problems letting those claims linger for so long without requiring lawsuits to be filed.”
Riley also is seeking to modify provisions relating to workers’ compensation with House Bill 275. He said the bill seeks to improve the litigation climate by making sure the workers’ compensation system “is not going to be paying for other injuries that are not directly related to that work injury.”
“Businesses have talked to me about being frustrated in the past of people abusing the workers’ compensation system to try and have it pay for other injuries other than those they sustained at work,” he said.
Morrow said from what chamber staff have seen of the bill at this stage, “it looks very promising.”
“It’s highlighting some of those same needs and priorities that employers have to provide confidence and certainty in the process, while still protecting workers for whatever needs that could arise through a workplace injury,” he said.
The 2023 legislative session concludes May 12.
The congregation at Crossway Baptist Church is building a children’s wing at the west end of the church, and beginning in 2024, it will be home to a Christian academy.