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Legal climate, workforce, transportation — Session’s first half brings hope for progress

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New leadership in the governor’s office, House and Senate and a large class of enthusiastic freshmen legislators helped make for a productive first two months of the 2019 Missouri Legislative Session. As lawmakers depart for their annual spring break, they have made headway toward addressing some of the most important issues facing our state: improving our legal climate, preparing our workforce and investing in our transportation infrastructure. This work all aligns with the Missouri 2030 strategic initiative by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

While no legislation of note to the business community has been sent to the governor’s desk thus far, the Missouri General Assembly’s work early this session has the legislature poised to make 2019 a historic year of progress.

Reforming our legal climate

Businesses have long faced an uphill battle in some Missouri courtrooms. While this is bad news for Missouri’s business community, it also harms businesses nationwide. Today, trial attorneys are adept at using flaws and loopholes in Missouri law to move their cases to the state’s most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions with a history of windfall-size judgements.

This year, Missouri lawmakers are considering numerous bills to address this problem, including several pieces of legislation that are steadily advancing through the legislature. The focus on legal climate reform is needed as decisions from the state’s courtrooms continue to detract from Missouri’s otherwise strong business environment. Missouri and St. Louis City consistently rank as having some of the worst legal climates in the nation, a negative reputation that hurts our ability to be competitive for economic growth opportunities.

Venue and joinder reform is considered an essential piece to this year’s work to improve Missouri’s legal climate. House and Senate bills on this issue would fix a longstanding issue which allows lawsuits with little-or-no connection to Missouri to be filed in plaintiff-friendly St. Louis and Kansas City courts. Sen. Ed Emery, a Republican from Lamar, illustrated the problem early in session by citing statistics from St. Louis, where Missouri residents comprise only 1,035 of the 13,252 mass tort plaintiffs involved in cases.

Sen. Emery’s Senate Bill 7 has already passed the Senate and has been heard in a House committee. Another bill addressing venue and joinder reform, House Bill 231 by Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, a Republican from Odessa, is awaiting a vote on the House floor.

While venue and joinder reform is essential to addressing Missouri’s legal climate issues, it is just one piece of the multifaceted approach lawmakers are taking to bring fairness to our state’s courtrooms.

Lawmakers are also working on positive legislation that would:

  • Stop trial attorneys from abusing the state’s consumer protection act.
  • End the overuse of punitive damages.
  • Halt double-dipping in asbestos claims.
  • Shield small local businesses from being pulled into national franchise lawsuits.
  • Bolster and protect employment arbitration.
  • Create reasonable time limits for product liability lawsuits.

“It is encouraging to see such a robust effort to bring fairness to our state’s court system. Missouri lawmakers clearly understand that this is a critical issue for our state’s business community,” said Daniel P. Mehan, Missouri Chamber president and CEO. “We can no longer afford for Missouri to be a dumping ground for high-stakes, high-cost litigation from across the country. These excessive lawsuits are burdening our courtrooms, slowing our legal system and costing taxpayers. While lawmakers have made great progress early this session, the hardest work is still to come. The Missouri Chamber will continue to advocate for the business community on this issue and we feel confident that major progress will be made this session.”

Preparing the workforce

The ability to access a skilled workforce remains a top concern for employers across Missouri. Only 44 percent of the state’s employers are satisfied with the availability of skilled employees, according to the Missouri 2030 Gallup survey. Furthermore, only 15 percent said they think Missouri high school graduates are prepared for the workforce.

Gov. Mike Parson has made addressing this problem one of the core goals for his administration. Early in session, he used his State of the State speech to reveal his vision for a program called Fast Track. This proposal would create a grant program that would enable Missourians to enhance their job skills. While the specifics of the proposal are still in discussion in the legislature, the proposal could help 16,000 Missourians strengthen their skills and prepare for work in high-demand jobs.

The legislation aligns with a recommended action item in the Missouri Chamber’s Workforce2030 Report released last year. According to the report, written by a nationally recognized economist, “upskilling efforts targeted at these adults could have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of our state’s workforce.”

The Fast Track idea is being championed by Rep. Kathy Swan, a Republican from Cape Girardeau, and Sen. Gary Romine, a Republican from Farmington. The Missouri House has already passed Rep. Swan’s House Bill 225 while the Senate has not yet voted on Sen. Romine’s Senate Bill 16.

In addition, lawmakers in both the House and Senate are considering a proposal from Gov. Parson to streamline and enhance the state’s job training incentives. The Missouri One Start plan would simplify the state’s workforce training incentives into one easy system that’s easier to navigate for job creators. It would give the Missouri Department of Economic Development more flexibility to address the unique needs of a business looking to expand or grow in the state. A related proposal would also establish a deal closing fund for the state. The Missouri Chamber and economic development leaders from across the state strongly support the ideas.

Missouri One Start is being sponsored by Rep. Derek Grier, a Republican from Chesterfield, and Sen. Wayne Wallingford, a Republican from Cape Girardeau. The deal closing fund legislation is being sponsored by Sen. Mike Cierpiot, a Republican from Lee’s Summit, and Rep. Travis Fitzwater, a Republican from Holts Summit. The House has passed Rep. Grier’s House Bill 469 and Rep. Fitzwater’s House Bill 255 while Sen. Wallingford’s Senate Bill 184 and Sen. Cierpiot’s Senate Bill 56 await a vote on the Senate floor.

Other important workforce legislation being considered this session would:

  • Enhance school choice through charter school expansion and education savings accounts.
  • Help businesses offer more externships to showcase in-demand jobs to educators.
  • Boost apprenticeship programs to improve job training.
  • Align state education standards with workforce needs.

“Today’s workforce shortage and skills gap impacts businesses in every region and industry across Missouri,” said Mehan. “The Missouri Chamber and private industry have stepped up to address this issue, spending years creating and expanding programs to help young people choose high-earning, in-demand careers. However, the targeted government reforms and programs being considered by the Missouri General Assembly would be game-changers and would significantly boost our efforts to prepare Missourians for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Investing in Infrastructure

Missouri is fortunate to have a well-developed network of highways, rail hubs and river ports that facilitate our economy. But our transportation system is critically underfunded. Missouri now ranks 48th in the nation in revenue per mile.

Fortunately, Gov. Parson and Missouri lawmakers are focused on this issue and several proposals for investment are currently under consideration. Gov. Parson and supportive lawmakers have pitched a plan to use bonding to raise $351 million and repair 250 bridges — a move that would free up funds to go toward other transportation projects. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are looking for ways to free up general revenue funds for transportation repairs.

Other lawmakers are looking at increasing the state’s fuel tax. A fuel tax increase was defeated at the ballot by Missouri voters in November. However, the new proposals being considered in the Missouri General Assembly are crafted in a way that draws important distinctions from the failed Proposition D. A bill in the House calls for spreading a 10-cent tax increase over five years, compared to the four in Proposition D. A bill in the Senate would raise the fuel tax by two cents per year for three years, and then allow it to rise with inflation. By spreading the increases out into small annual tax bumps, these proposals would give the legislature and the governor the authority to enact the transportation funding package without waiting for another election.

There is also growing support for the state to explore whether hyperloop transportation would be a positive, feasible mode of transportation to bring to the state. Speaker of the House Rep. Elijah Haahr has created a task force to study the hyperloop idea.

“Missouri risks falling behind if we continue to neglect investing in our infrastructure,” said Mehan. “It’s promising to see so many lawmakers focused on this issue. However, when the legislature reconvenes following spring break, it will become imperative that support begins to coalesce around the right path forward for 2019. Transportation is a complex issue, but in Missouri the biggest concern is simple — we need more funding. The Missouri Chamber will continue to lead on this issue. Our economy depends on it.”

Addressing important business issues
In addition, lawmakers are also working on several other key issues facing today’s employers, including bills to:

  • Reform the state’s initiative petition process to protect Missouri’s constitution.
  • Create sales tax fairness between online and brick and mortar retailers.
  • Improve the state’s unemployment benefit system to help avoid costly federal borrowing during future recessions.
  • End the wasteful economic border war between Missouri and Kansas.
  • Establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring system.
  • Bring clarity to drug free workplace policies in the age of legal medical marijuana.

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