Mo. GOP lawmakers refocus their business proposals

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Forget the huge rewrite of Missouri's voluminous tax credits. Forget the sweet package of new incentives for everything from Chinese cargo flights to college basketball tournaments.

Unable to pass comprehensive legislation in 2011, Missouri's Republican legislative leaders are refining their goals for "economic development" in 2012 to focus on incremental changes to workplace laws that they hope will cause the business climate to inch upward — even if only by a matter of degrees.

The Republican business agenda for the legislative session that starts this coming Wednesday seeks to keep certain workplace injury spats out of the courts, make it harder to bring employment discrimination suits and shift more of the costs in liability lawsuits to the people making the claims. Under the heading of job creation and development, Republican lawmakers may also seek to pare back mandatory wage rates on some public works projects.

"All of us agreed that we need to continue to work on issues that impact jobs," said Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. But he acknowledged: "Certainly, it's a smaller package in magnitude than what was put forth in the economic development bill last session."

The realities of an election year — and the lingering intraparty divisions from an autumn special session that ended in failure for its marque business incentive bill — mean that majority party Republicans may be willing to forgo grand proposals during 2012 and instead concentrate on more nuts-and-bolts items that appeal to the business sector but don't divide their own caucus.

Those proposals include several tinkering changes to Missouri's workplace injury laws aimed at overturning court rulings that have been handed down since Republicans revamped the workers' compensation system in 2005. One proposal would prohibit employees from suing co-workers over on-the-job injuries. Another would specifically state that occupational diseases are covered by the non-judicial state workers' compensation system, which allows hurt workers to recoup medical bills and lost wages. The goal is to keep such disputes out of the courts, where the costs to businesses are less certain and potentially higher.

Republicans may also push for more restrictions on liability lawsuits, seeking to add to their "tort reform" measures enacted in 2005. One proposal would require plaintiffs to pay the legal bills of defendant businesses if their lawsuits are unsuccessful. Another proposal would do away with the "joint and several liability" policy under which businesses found to bear a majority of fault in court judgments can end up picking up the tab of co-defendants found to be at lesser fault but who are unable to pay.

Although vetoed this past year by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, Republican lawmakers again plan to pursue legislation making it harder to win workplace discrimination cases. Among other things, the bill would require proof that bias was a "motivating" factor, not just a "contributing" factor as is currently the case.

Many of Missouri's business associations — including the prominent Associated Industries of Missouri and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry — back the proposed changes to discrimination and workplace injury laws.

Unlike the multi-million-dollar tax incentives considered in 2011 for various businesses, "those are issues that do not cost the taxpayers a penny but improve the business climate in the state of Missouri," said House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville.

But some of the proposals face resistance from minority party Democrats, who are concerned they favor employers over their employees.

"If you're going to talk about job creation and economic development, making it much harder for workers to get a fair shake is not the approach you want to take," said House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City.

The financial cost of any proposal is again likely to be a big consideration in 2012, because lawmakers will be trying to craft an annual state budget that is projected to be a few hundred million dollars in the hole.

Republican legislative leaders and the Democratic governor all have been firm in their resistance to tax increases. In 2011, in fact, Nixon signed a bill gradually phasing out Missouri's corporate franchise tax.

But leaders of the state Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Missouri say they will back a 2012 proposal that would temporarily raise the surcharge that businesses pay for the state's Second Injury Fund, which is running out of money. The fund provides payments to people with pre-existing injuries or disabilities who then suffer an additional workplace injury.

According to the business groups, legislation to be considered in 2012 would raise the maximum surcharge for the fund from the current 3 percent of workers' compensation insurance premiums to 4.5 percent beginning in 2013. That surcharge then could be raised to 6 percent beginning in 2014 if a committee consisting of the governor, attorney general, House speaker and Senate president pro tem agree it is necessary.

The plan also would scale back eligibility for the Second Injury Fund by eliminating claims involving permanent partial disabilities and requiring claims for total disability to involve cases where the previous injury also was either work-related or incurred during military service. The plan also would reduce the interest rate paid from the fund on disability claims.

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