Business groups faring well with GOP cooperation

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The 2005 legislative session is shaping up to be a banner year for the pro-business lobby with the Missouri Legislature taking quick action on its favored bills and Gov. Matt Blunt committed to signing many of those measures into law.

Although business groups have enjoyed strong support in the legislature since Republicans took control in 2003, former governor Bob Holden, a Democrat, thwarted many of their efforts with vetoes or the threat of vetoes. The path is much smoother with the Republican Blunt in office, said Dan Mehan, president and chief executive officer of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"I hate to make predictions, but when all is said and done this legislative session could be the most productive ever for the employer community," Mehan said. "We're a long way from the finish line, and a lot of work is left to be done."

Before lawmakers adjourned for spring recess Thursday, marking the symbolic midpoint of the session, they had already granted final passage to bills to overhaul Missouri's civil litigation and workers' compensation systems -- the top two priorities on the business agenda. Supporters say both bills will lower the cost of doing business in the state, which in the long term will translate into more jobs and a stronger economy.

Intent to sign

In both of the two previous years, litigation measures had fallen to Holden's vetoes, while workers' compensation bills were filibustered by Senate Democrats. Blunt intends to sign both bills into law once they undergo customary reviews by his staff.

The civil litigation bill is far more expansive than either of the earlier versions Holden rejected. Its three main provisions would restrict where lawsuits can be filed, limit financial liability for defendants and cap punitive damages and financial awards for pain and suffering.

Sharon Geuea Jones, director of governmental relations for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the bill will make it more difficult for injured parties to pursue cases and receive compensation when they prevail. Particularly troublesome, Jones said, is the provision that limits financial liability for defendants.

Under Missouri's current version of the concept of joint and several liability, one defendant can be required to pay the full damage award if co-defendants are bankrupt. The bill would require a defendant to be at least 51 percent responsible for an injury in order to have to pay for shares of liability assigned to financially insolvent co-defendants.

"We are going to see a lot of people who are not going to be fully compensated," Jones said.

Effect on judges

MATA also takes issue with the workers' compensation bill, which would raise the standard as to what constitutes a workplace injury. The bill would also limit the autonomy currently enjoyed by the administrative law judges that preside over workers' compensation cases. Such judges would be subject to performance reviews and periodic reappointment to their posts.

"It is bringing politics into the courtroom and makes judges afraid that if they don't please the powers-that-be, they'll lose their jobs," Jones said.

As originally passed by the Senate, the bill was a carefully crafted compromise involving both business and labor interests. The House of Representatives took a substantially more business-friendly position that is reflected in the final bill.

Missouri AFL-CIO president Hugh McVey last week sent Blunt a letter urging him to veto the bill, which the governor isn't likely to do.

Once the legislature reconvenes on Tuesday, seven more weeks of work lie ahead before the session ends for the year on May 13. During the time remaining, business groups plan to pursue a variety of issues, including providing long-term solvency for Missouri's unemployment compensation system, revising environmental regulations and making a three-day sales tax holiday on certain purchases the state experimented with last summer an annual event.

Associated Industries of Missouri president Gary Marble said his group will also push an economic stimulus package Blunt announced last week. The package includes tax breaks and other incentives for companies that create good-paying jobs with respectable health-care benefits for employees.

"That economic development package is very important, and we hope it will pass this year," Marble said.

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