Businesses get mixed results in Missouri Legislature

Missouri Republicans came into this year’s legislative session with historic majorities and a pledge to push a pro-business agenda they said would improve the state’s economy and lower its stubbornly high unemployment rate.

But businesses had gotten only mixed results by the time lawmakers adjourned their session Friday.

Legislators enacted new tax cuts for businesses, including repealing the state’s corporate franchise tax and scaling back the amount of money businesses must pay toward unemployment benefits.

But a business-backed bill making it harder to win workplace discrimination lawsuits was vetoed, and lawmakers failed to pass a bill authorizing new tax incentives for the St. Louis airport, science and technology companies and various others.

Also on the failed list were business-backed bills making changes to workers’ compensation laws, liability lawsuits and Missouri’s minimum wage. And a bill attempting to shore up a nearly insolvent state trust fund for injured workers failed, in part because of a disagreement among business interests.

After an optimistic beginning to the session, the Associated Industries of Missouri said in a statement that it “was left bewildered on the final day of the legislative session that fell on Friday the Thirteenth.” Of six priority issues outlined by business groups at the start of the session, just two passed — and one of those was vetoed.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry declared the session a success for the passage of tax-cutting bills it said will save businesses $200 million annually. Yet the chamber simultaneously expressed outrage that lawmakers had left “employees and taxpayers in a precarious position” by failing to pass bills related to workers’ compensation claims and the state’s Second Injury Fund.

The chamber had supported legislation offering tax incentives to transform Lambert-St. Louis International Airport into a hub for foreign cargo shippers and to create a program using a portion of the tax revenues from high-tech companies to help attract similar businesses to the state.

Chamber president Dan Mehan called the failure of the package “disappointing,” but noted the legislation “had a lot of moving parts” that could have made it more difficult to reach an agreement.

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said the year’s legislative work would have made for “an outstanding, great session” had the tax credit package passed. But he said Republicans had not failed in advancing their pro-business agenda.

Some Democrats saw it differently.

“If the elimination of the franchise tax is our job-creation bill, it’s an ‘F,’” said House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City.

After the session ended Friday, Mayer said Nixon should call a special session to give lawmakers more time to negotiate the tax credits package. Nixon did not rule out that option, but he said there would first have to be a consensus among lawmakers on a specific proposal that could provide a boost to Missouri’s economy.

Nixon suggested lawmakers could try again next year to make changes to the state’s virtually drained Second Injury Fund, which pays claims to people with previous injuries or ailments who suffer a second injury on the job.

Attorney General Chris Koster said Thursday the Second Injury Fund could soon become insolvent. If that happens, the state could be forced to pay claims made to fund and thus face “unpalatable choices.”

One proposal put forth during the final week of the legislative session would have folded the Second Injury Fund into the workers compensation fund. But the Missouri chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business condemned the plan, saying it would increase the workers compensation surcharge.

Eventually the Second Injury Fund was stripped from the legislation. House and Senate negotiators then signed a plan that would have assured that most claims of co-worker injuries would be handled by the workers compensation system.

The Senate passed the workers compensation legislation Friday, but it was never bought up before the full House.

Mehan said the entire business platform could take years to move through the Legislature, even if a majority of lawmakers support it. But he said the platform had raised awareness of the changes businesses want.

“It isn’t easy to pass a law, but it’s very easy to kill one,” he said. “This ended up being more about uniting businesses and getting people talking about the problems they faced, and that worked.”

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