Republicans fell short Wednesday in their high-profile push to make Missouri the nation’s 26th “right-to-work” state, failing to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of legislation despised by labor unions.
But legislative leaders did succeed in enacting another Republican priority — with first the House and then the Senate overturning Nixon’s veto of a bill banning cities from raising the minimum wage above the state’s level. Both the Kansas City and St. Louis city councils earlier this year approved eventually raising the wage well above the state’s $7.65 an hour limit.
In the battle over the “right to work” bill, which received national attention, the Republican-dominated Missouri House voted 96-63 to override the veto of legislation that would have made it a misdemeanor for anyone to be required to become a union member or pay fees to a labor organization as a condition of employment.
That was 13 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for an override, with 20 Republicans joining with nearly every Democrat to oppose the measure. Because the House failed to override the veto, the Senate never got the chance to debate it.
So-called “right to work” laws are the most contentious of disputes between management and unions played out in state legislatures around the nation. Several states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors have recently enacted such laws, including labor bastions like Wisconsin and Michigan.
Six of eight states bordering Missouri have the law, including Kansas.
Supporters say they strengthen the state’s economy and encourage businesses to grow.
Employees shouldn’t be forced to pay fees to an organization against their will, said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Eric Burlison of Springfield. The laws “uphold the rights of the individual,” he said.
“It ensures that the worker has an individual liberty to choose where they want to work and what organization they want to belong to,” said Rep. Rick Brattin, a Republican from Harrisonville.
Opponents say the forces pushing “right-to-work” bills are motivated by politics, pushing to weaken unions that have historically supported the Democratic Party. They say allowing some employees to receive benefits of the contracts labor unions negotiate without having to contribute weakens unions and drives down wages.
“This is an attack on the middle-class worker,” said Rep. Karla May, a St. Louis Democrat.
Throughout the summer, both sides of the issue ran TV ads arguing their case to voters. The main focus was the 23 Republicans in the House who voted against the bill in May, with both opponents and supporters waging campaigns to sway the lawmakers.
On Monday, Joplin manufacturer David Humphreys upped the ante by dropping $500,000 into a newly formed campaign committee allegedly aimed at challenging GOP legislators who refuse to support “right to work.”
But the looming threat of a primary didn’t sway enough Republicans to win the day for “right-to-work” supporters, pushing the issue into 2016 and the race to replace Nixon, who is term-limited and can’t run for re-election.
Each of the Republicans who are expected to run for governor next year supports “right to work.” Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the only Democrat running for governor, opposes the measure.
On the minimum wage, the Republican legislative majority was able to override Nixon’s veto of a bill prohibiting Kansas City and other municipalities from increasing the minimum wage above the $7.65 an hour statewide rate.
The Kansas City Council voted in July to gradually increase the local minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2020. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted for an $11 an hour minimum wage last month.
In Kansas City, a group of civil rights and low-wage worker advocates gathered sufficient petition signatures to put a measure on the local November ballot calling for a $15 minimum wage by 2020.
The Kansas City Council voted to place the $15 an hour wage petition on the November ballot, but anticipating the Missouri General Assembly’s veto override, the council also told election authorities to withdraw that measure if the legislature overrode Nixon’s veto on the local-control ordinance.
The council said the legislature’s action would nullify the city’s ability to increase the minimum wage, so conducting a special November election on a $15 minimum wage proposal would be invalid.
“Today is a loss for accountable, local governing,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James. “I hope when voters realize the state took away their ability to improve their cities and the lives of the people who live in them, they will use their frustration to take on the legislators who abandoned them.”
Proponents of the preemption bill say cities are already prohibited under state law from raising the minimum wage. Its sponsor, Republican Rep. Dan Shaul of Imperial, called the bill simply a “clarification” of existing law.
The bill “ensures a consistent and level playing field for everyone around the state,” Shaul said.
Critics disagree, saying the push was a clear violation of local control.
“This bill is by far the most anti-local control bill passed by this chamber in years,” said Rep. Jon Carpenter, a Gladstone Democrat.
Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, said the negative effects of a minimum wage increase in the state’s urban centers would ripple across the state.
“When Kansas City and St. Louis take action that kill jobs and cause the economic engines of this state to sputter, it hurts my constituents,” Barnes said.
In addition to the minimum-wage provisions, the bill also prohibits local governments from banning plastic grocery bags or mandating benefits on employers such as vacation or sick leave.
Democrats argued Wednesday that because the bill started out solely focused on plastic bags, with the minimum wage and benefits provisions added as amendments in the Senate, the bill violates the state constitution’s mandate that legislation have only one subject.
Republicans also successfully pushed through a bill that bans the children of immigrants in the country illegally from receiving the state-funded A+ Scholarship. Nixon vetoed the bill this summer, and lawmakers voted to override the governor on a 24-8 party-line vote in the Senate and 114-37 in the House.
Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican who sponsored the bill, said it’s unfair for students who are in the country illegally to receive the scholarship when money for the program is tight.
“I am protecting the citizens and permanent residents of this state right now,” he said.
Opponents say these students were brought to the U.S. as young children and are in the country illegally through no fault of their own. The students in question kept their grades up, volunteered in their community and stayed out of trouble, advocates say, most while learning English as a second language.
“Why are we punishing children for a fault of their parents?” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat whose district includes the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, said the legislature’s priorities are out of whack.
“People are dying in my district every day,” she said, “and we’re arguing about who gets a scholarship?”
Republicans also voted to override Nixon’s veto of a bill that shrinks the length of jobless benefits by tying them to the state’s unemployment rate. They succeeded in overriding the governor on another that provides sales tax exemptions to commercial laundries.
Nixon’s veto of a bill aimed at addressing problems with the law that allows students in unacredited schools to transfer to a neighboring district managed to survive without a vote taking place at all. Legislative leaders acknowledged an override was an uphill fight, and the bill’s House sponsor brought the bill up for discussion but laid it over without taking a vote.
The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.