Government & Politics

Right-to-work constitutional amendment speeding through Missouri House

Gov. Eric Greitens held multiple signing ceremonies for right-to-work legislation on Feb. 6, 2017, including one inside the Capitol in Jefferson City.
Gov. Eric Greitens held multiple signing ceremonies for right-to-work legislation on Feb. 6, 2017, including one inside the Capitol in Jefferson City. Missouri House Communications

Missouri lawmakers have fast-tracked a bill that would put a right-to-work law in the state's Constitution in the hopes of rushing it through the process and across the finish line before the legislative session ends at 6 p.m. next Friday.

The expedited legislative push comes after a failed effort by a political action committee called Freedom to Work to collect enough signatures to put the right-to-work amendment on the statewide ballot later this year — despite spending more than $750,000 on the campaign since January.

Over the course of a few hours Wednesday evening, two Missouri House committees approved the proposed constitutional amendment. Even the bill's sponsor says he was caught off guard by how quickly his legislation started moving.

"This late in the session, even when it was referred to committee, I just assumed it was dead," said Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, who introduced the bill in January and watched it sit idle for four months. "I was surprised. I haven't even had a chance to talk to (House) leadership about what their plans are."

In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees in unionized workplaces can opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented. Missouri lawmakers approved, and Gov. Eric Greitens signed, a right-to-work law last year, but labor unions collected enough signatures to put a repeal of the law on November's ballot.

Freedom to Work sought to undercut that repeal with an initiative petition in favor of right to work, but the effort fizzled. The deadline to submit signatures to the Missouri secretary of state for proposed ballot measures was last Sunday.

Signatures for six other proposals — a minimum wage hike, limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and four to legalize medical marijuana — were submitted.

"It's disappointing to see them spend that much money and they still weren't able to get it done," Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said of Freedom to Work's efforts.

Most of Freedom to Work's money came from Greitens' nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc.

And most of Freedom to Work's spending went to some of Greitens' closest political allies.

A New Missouri, which doesn't have to disclose where it gets its money, donated $1.2 million in January to Freedom to Work.

Since that time, Freedom to Work has paid $600,000 to Vanguard Field Strategies to collect signatures.

Vanguard is owned by Jeff Roe, a veteran GOP consultant whose public relations firm is working on behalf of the governor’s legal defense team.

Greitens is facing a felony charge of invasion of privacy in St. Louis stemming from accusations that he took a nude photo of a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015 without her consent and threatened to release it if she spoke about their relationship.

One of Roe’s top lieutenants, Aaron Baker, is registered to lobby on the governor’s behalf as he works to stave off possible impeachment in the legislature.

Freedom to Work also paid $37,500 for fundraising services to the company of Meredith Gibbons. She’s also the fundraiser for Greitens’ campaign committee and for A New Missouri.

The law firm of Greitens ally and Missouri GOP Chairman Todd Graves was paid $25,000 by Freedom to Work. Graves’ firm also represents the legal defense fund for Greitens’ staff.

C5 Creative Consulting was paid $46,000. The company was founded by Nick Ayers, Greitens’ top 2016 campaign consultant. Ayers now serves as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. Before it was recently dissolved, C5 also employed Austin Chambers, Greitens’ senior political adviser, who runs A New Missouri.

Two other Ayers-affiliated companies — Something Else Strategies and BASK Digital Media — were paid $30,000 and $15,000, respectively, by Freedom to Work.

Another political action committee pushing the failed right-to-work initiative petition, Missourians for Worker Freedom, took $350,000 in contributions from A New Missouri last summer. Since then, it's paid $185,000 to Graves' law firm for legal fees, $180,000 to Roe's Axiom Strategies and $6,500 to Gibbons’ company.

Freedom to Work’s treasurer did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did a representative of the Missouri Republican Party.

On Wednesday, A New Missouri gave Freedom to Work an additional $500,000.

Also Wednesday, Brattin's bill putting right-to-work in the Constitution was approved by two House committees.

Brattin has been a longtime champion of right to work, most notably when he hosted a group of Kansas City police officers in 2013 as they pushed lawmakers in the Missouri Capitol to approve a right-to-work bill.

"To me, right to work is about individual freedom," Brattin said. "Where do we enshrine individual freedoms and protections? In our Constitution. I want to allow the people to decide, so there are no more political games that can be played with state statute."

The full House could vote this week to send the bill to the Senate, which would then have five days to hold a public hearing, vote it out of committee and overcome a likely filibuster by Democrats in order to put the proposal on the statewide ballot later this year.

State Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, called into question the timing of the $500,000 donation by A New Missouri.

“The fundraising wing of their failed initiative petition getting half a million dollars from Greitens' dark money PAC the day this bill is heard in committee is highly suspicious,” he said. “We need an investigation immediately.”

Chambers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.