Missouri Senate leaders push for unemployment extension, workers comp reform in next two weeks

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With two weeks to go until Missouri lawmakers go on spring break, Republican leaders are trying to bridge ideological differences within their own party to pass two major pieces of legislation.

Attempts to extend unemployment benefits and reform the state's workers compensation system, both sponsored by Republican members of the Senate, were both held up last week by objections from fellow GOP senators.

"I think there is going to be some debate regarding federal moneys we receive and how we use them," said Senate President Pro Tem Robert Mayer, R-Dexter, over recent splits within his caucus. "I think really this is all coming from a desire to have an all-encompassing discussion about the budget."

A feud over accepting federal money is at the heart of the majority caucus's divide over whether to accept $81 million in federal funding for extended unemployment for Missourians out of work for 79 to 99 weeks. Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, led a two-day filibuster last week along with three other conservative colleagues to block passage of the bill. They see the effort as sending a message to Congress protesting what they view as reckless spending.

For their parts, Mayer and Senate Majority Floor Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, agree that federal spending is out of hand, but say that the unemployment bill is the wrong piece of legislation upon which to take a stand, saying those who are out of work could legitimately use the money and that rejected funds will simply be redistributed to other states, failing to prevent further spending. Dempsey said he plans to bring the bill up again before spring break, noting that extended unemployment payments are set to stop the first week in April if the bill is not passed. Lembke has shown no public signs of yielding on his position.

The other major piece of legislation that Senate leaders hope to pass this week is a bill reforming workers' compensation in Missouri -- a major priority of the Republican agenda outlined at the start of the session.

The bill, which among other provisions would limit the liability of co-workers, was held up after Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, led other Republicans in a late-night filibuster, objecting to a provision that would remove toxic exposure claims from the workers compensation system.

Under the proposed bill, disabilities and illnesses resulting from prolonged exposure to toxic substances would have to be litigated in courts, rather than having money sought through the workers compensation system. Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, the bill's sponsor, has said that putting such cases in court helps put more pressure on negligent companies to change dangerous practices. But Crowell and others said that it would make it more difficult for workers to collect compensation, since the threshold for proving toxic exposure illnesses is higher in courts.

Sen. Dempsey said the two senators are currently working on a possible compromise that would allow toxic exposure to remain in the purview of workers compensation, but increase the amount that companies could potentially pay in order to put pressure on negligible employers.

"I plan on us passing the workers compensation bill by spring break," Dempsey said. "I'm happy to have them meet this week and iron something out."

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