Republican lawmakers entered the 2017 legislative session in January vowing to enact tough new regulations on labor unions, lighten the regulatory load on businesses and overhaul Missouri’s legal system.
As the session reached its midpoint last week, and lawmakers returned to their districts for spring break, the GOP has flexed its supermajorities in the Missouri House and Senate to push through a litany of bills on that agenda that had languished for years.
A right-to-work law, allowing employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented, was passed and signed into law by Gov. Eric Greitens. Another bill awaiting Greitens’ signature would establish more stringent standards for vetting expert witnesses in jury trials.
And awaiting their return next week are a host of bills that are close to the finish line, including a change to discrimination law that would make it harder to sue a former employer; an array of new regulations on public employee unions representing teachers, police and firefighters; and an expansion of charter schools to districts all over the state.
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“In January, we pledged to make Missouri more competitive with our neighbors,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican. “Every piece of legislation the Senate has passed so far has been an effort to make the Show-Me State more attractive to investments.”
Not everyone shares the GOP’s rosy view of the 2017 session.
“A few megadonors spent millions of dollars to elect Republican lawmakers to do their bidding, and they are getting everything they paid for,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat. “Unless you have a fat wallet and a willingness to open it, you have no say in the Missouri Capitol. That can’t continue if our democracy is to survive.”
Labor unions have gotten the lion’s share of attention this session, and that doesn’t look to subside anytime soon. Both the House and Senate have debated legislation that would repeal the prevailing wage law and outlaw project labor agreements, which are bargaining agreements for public projects.
In the days leading up to spring break, the Senate debated legislation that would require annual authorization from public employees before unions can deduct dues from their paychecks. The bill also would require a secret-ballot election to certify unions as the exclusive bargaining representation of their workers, and the unions could be certified only if 30 percent of members were on board.
Republicans also have focused on legislation aimed at making the state’s legal system more business-friendly. The changes to the expert witness law are one piece. Other legislation includes making it harder for plaintiffs to join together to fight deceptive or harmful business practices.
“These reforms create a better business climate so businesses can hire employees rather than waste money on frivolous lawsuits,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican.
Critics say the changes would take away the rights of Missourians to access the court system.
“There’s no question where the priorities of our (legislative) leadership are,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican. “It doesn’t appear to be with working families.”
The Senate is expected next to debate a bill that would prohibit cities across the state from increasing the minimum wage above the state level. The bill sailed through the House and needs only one more vote in the Senate to go to Greitens.
Lawmakers also will focus on the state’s $27 billion budget. Slow revenue growth, rising Medicaid spending and a near elimination of taxes on corporations have created a massive budget hole.
Among the items on the chopping block is a property tax credit for seniors and people with disabilities who rent their homes. The House narrowly approved eliminating the credit last week, and Senate leadership supports its repeal.
The Senate also has vowed to continue working toward legislation reining in lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The House quickly passed a ban on gifts in January, but it has stalled in the Senate. Complicating matters is the fact that the bill’s biggest champion, Greitens, is facing mounting criticism over his reliance on so-called dark money — contributions routed through nonprofits to conceal the identity of the donor.
“The governor campaigned on removing corruption in Jefferson City,” McCann Beatty said, “yet anti-corruption legislation has gone nowhere.”
With only seven weeks remaining before the legislature is constitutionally mandated to adjourn, Republicans are optimistic many of the ideas they’ve been pushing for years will finally become law.
“How do we create the kind of economic environment here that creates a strong, vibrant, dynamic economy and allows people to earn more than they do today?” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican. “’I know that’s the mission that my caucus will be focused on.”