Blunt proposes reform for labor panel

Friday, January 14, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt on Thursday appointed a Southeast Missouri native chairman of the state Labor and Industrial Relations Commission and called for legislation to stem abuse of the panel's lucrative pension system.

Blunt's choice as commission leader is Bill Ringer, a Kansas City lawyer who grew up and began his legal career in Dexter, Mo. As chairman, Ringer is to represent the public on the commission, an administrative appeals panel that hears disputes related to workers' compensation claims and unemployment benefits. The panel's two other members respectively represent the interests of labor and business.

During the recent administration of former Democratic governor Bob Holden, the commission experienced significant turnover as several members were appointed and then left after short stints, in effect circumventing the Senate confirmation process. Those with prior state service, particularly former lawmakers, departed with drastic boosts in their state retirement benefits.

To erase the perception that a commission spot is a way for a governor to reward political allies, Blunt proposes requiring appointees to be confirmed by the Senate and serve a minimum of two years before their commission service has an impact on their pensions. Reform bills have been filed in both legislative chambers. They would not apply retroactively to current or former commissioners.

"Under the current system we have today, one day of service on the commission can have a massive impact on your state pension, and that's wrong," the new Republican governor said. "That's a bad system."

Holden's nomination of former Senate minority floor leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, as commission chairman in August helped ignite debate on the issue. With his appointment, Jacob's pension jumped from $28,739 to $47,615 a year.

Also, Jacob's close ties to organized labor as a lawmaker prompted bias complaints from business groups as he was picked for the supposedly neutral position as the public's representative. Jacob recently resigned the post to become executive director of the local chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that represents many state government workers.

Ringer's appointment could be viewed as the flip side of the Jacob coin. The 56-year-old attorney served on the commission as the employers' representative from 1982 to 1986 during the administration of former Republican governor Kit Bond. In private practice, Ringer has represented both workers and employers in workers' compensation cases but acknowledged that the bulk of his practice has been in defending businesses.

Blunt dismissed suggestions that Ringer might be biased in favor of employers.

"I'm convinced of his integrity and his understanding that he needs to be the representative of the public and not either side," Blunt said.

Ringer said he is committed to preserving balance on the commission.

"You apply the facts to the case. I know that's simplistic, but that's the way you've got to keep it," Ringer said. "There is no ax to grind. Look at the case on its own merits, and then you decide."

Ringer practiced law in Dexter from 1976 to 1980, when he left to work for the labor commission, first as a lawyer and then as a member.

Blunt offered no indication as to the future of commissioner Bill Foster of Poplar Bluff as the business representative. Holden appointed Foster to the panel in September. Blunt withdrew the appointment, along with scores of others Holden made, on Monday.

"We will make an announcement at a future point about who will be the employer representative," Blunt said.

Foster, a Republican, will continue to hold the post unless a successor is appointed and confirmed. Blunt wouldn't say if Foster is under consideration for re-nomination.

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