By Daniel P. Mehan
Where would sick people go if Missouri hospitals shut down for four months? What would happen if Missouri trucking companies stopped hauling goods for 120 days? How would our economy be affected if every manufacturing plant in the state decided to cut production in half for months on end?
These questions might seem ridiculous. Few organizations could be unproductive for four months and still stay in business. Yet that is exactly what political insiders are saying will happen this year in the Missouri Legislature because of the impending election. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry disagrees. We believe Missouri lawmakers, who campaigned on the promise to grow Missouri jobs and have delivered major job-creating legislation in recent legislative sessions, will continue to show their commitment to working Missouri, despite the distractions that can happen in an election year.
Like business, the challenges employers face don't stop because it is an election year. Several legislative issues, which could mean millions to Missouri employers' bottom lines and thousands of Missouri jobs, are hanging in the balance.
In no case is this more evident than in the area of workers' compensation. In the 2007 legislative session, legislation to reverse a Missouri Supreme Court ruling (Schoemel v. Treasurer of the State of Missouri), which allowed a widow to continue receiving her deceased husband's workers' compensation benefits through the state's Second Injury Fund, was stalled by a Missouri House committee. The legislation, passed unanimously by the Senate, would have made the law clear that permanent total disability benefits are intended to expire upon the unrelated death of the injured employee. Instead, lawmakers left unresolved an issue that, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, could increase the cost of Missouri's workers' compensation system by more than $33 million in the next five years. This adds to the threat of future insolvency, specifically to the Second Injury Fund, which already is fiscally strapped. Three separate fiscal analyses have shown the fund will be bankrupt by the end of 2008. The Missouri Chamber has been working with numerous interested parties to create a unified message to save this safety net for the people for which it was intended: Missouri's injured workers.
As in workers' compensation, lawmakers must be ready to act on another important employer issue in the upcoming legislative session: education. More than one-third of college freshmen at Missouri's public universities had to take remedial courses last year to catch up with the basic concepts they should have learned in high school. This is just one statistic of many that reveals the gaps in our education system that must be closed. Missouri can't expect to compete in the technology-driven, knowledge-based economy unless we expect more from our students and give them the tools they need to achieve academic success. In the 2008 legislative session, the Missouri Chamber will push the legislative recommendations put forth by a group of business, education and community stakeholders called the METS Coalition, who have come together to find ways to improve Missouri education specifically in the areas of math, engineering, technology and science. Among these recommendations is the need to revise and streamline Missouri's grade level expectations, curricula and assessments for math and science and ensure that these work hand in hand with collegiate expectations. The Missouri Chamber will also advocate increased funding to bring more technology into classrooms, expand after-school programs geared toward math and science, and allow more students to take advanced placement courses in high school. Alternative teacher certification will be another important education priority to help address the shortage of math and science teachers that exists in many Missouri schools.
Improving education will increase the state's skilled work force. The next step is to ensure that all qualified Missourians have access to high-paying, skilled jobs. The Grow Me State Initiative, advocated by the Missouri Chamber and a group of the strongest economic development organizations in the state, is one of several economic development initiatives the Missouri Chamber will advocate in 2008. The legislation would establish a platform of technology-based economic development activities specifically geared at addressing Missouri's critical need for risk capital. A recent report by the the University of Missouri-Kansas City Bloch School's Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation showed that Missouri is falling behind other states in the creation of high-tech start up firms. This legislation is designed to change that trend, by setting up the infrastructure that will encourage investment enabling new companies to start, grow and hire new employees.
A key part of building a knowledge-based economy is to make sure that it can be supported by technology. For that reason, the Missouri Chamber has taken an active role in the a new state task force working to bring high-speed Internet to the more than 20 percent of Missourians who live in areas of the state that don't have broadband service. A study released in September by the Missouri Public Service Commission shows despite the fact that high-speed internet is readily available in Missouri's urban communities, only about 60 percent of rural and small-town residents have access to this kind of connection. Deployment of high speed broadband to all Missourians is critical for economic development, innovation, community growth and personal advancement. Currently, rural Missourians are at a significant disadvantage because of the lack of affordability and accessibility to this technology. The task force recently traveled around the state gathering testimony and ideas of how to address this problem and will be presenting recommendations to lawmakers early in the 2008 legislative session.
Immigration will also become an important part of any discussion about Missouri's future work force, fueled in part by the upcoming elections. Frustrated with the lack of a coherent federal policy on immigration, state lawmakers across the nation have filed a flurry of legislative proposals to attack the issue at home. A key reason why: firm policy against illegal immigration rates well with voters, and many political candidates are making the issue a prominent part of their campaign platforms. Despite the stalemate in Washington, illegal immigration is a federal issue, and it should be left to the federal government to put forth a plan that can span all states. The Missouri Chamber will push for reform on the federal level, and monitor all state proposals to be sure that state lawmakers' efforts don't do more harm than good to Missouri's economy.
Health care is another issue that must have attention in 2008. 2007 marked the beginning of a cultural shift in the way lawmakers approached health care reform, putting more focus on consumer-driven initiatives, such as building preventive measures into state-funded health care and providing tax incentives and portability options for individuals purchasing their own health insurance. These were important steps, but with more than 700,000 Missourians still lacking health coverage, much more needs to be done. Skyrocketing health insurance costs are driving employers out of the insurance market. This should be a sobering fact for policymakers, as employers foot the bill for 59 percent of Missourians covered by health insurance. For this reason, the Missouri Chamber insists that any health-care debate in 2008 has to include more ways to make health insurance affordable for Missouri employers.
Like health care, tax policy is another key issue affecting Missouri employers that will receive debate this legislative session. Property tax reform is under review by state legislatures across the nation, including Missouri, where it has the potential to be a front burner tax policy issue for Missouri lawmakers. The danger of this reform movement is that it could result in a shifting of tax liability onto Missouri employers. Therefore, the Missouri Chamber will closely monitor debate of property tax reform to protect increased taxation on business property.
These are just a few of the business issues that must be brought to the forefront of debate in the 2008 legislative session. While the election will undoubtedly have an impact on this year's legislative outcomes, one thing remains constant: Missouri has a strong, pro-business legislature and administration. They have proven in recent sessions their commitment to growing jobs and our state's economy. It is the job of the Missouri Chamber to let lawmakers know that passing pro-jobs legislation is imperative this legislative session as well, and will be used as a litmus test when employers visit the polls in the fall.
Daniel P. Mehan is the president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jefferson City, Mo.