House Begins Work on Employment Law Fix
This week we began discussion on the House floor on legislation that would address the disturbing trend of legal decisions we have seen in this state that have eroded the intent of Missouri’s employment law. With each court decision we have seen our state become more anti-business compared to the states around us – something that greatly impairs our ability to attract and retain businesses in Missouri. The bill we are considering now [HB1219] would reform the Missouri Human Rights Act regarding discrimination claims to more closely reflect federal Title VII protection. It’s similar to legislation we approved last year that was ultimately vetoed by the governor. We’re hopeful this year will see this important change make its way into law.
The issue at hand is that the MHRA has been interpreted in ways more plaintiff-friendly than the federal statutes. In effect, court decisions in Missouri regarding the MHRA have made it much easier for employee plaintiffs to get claims to an expensive jury trial, and to impose liability on the employer and individual supervisors. By changing our law to be more in line with the federal standard, we would strike a good balance between creating a stable legal environment for businesses and protecting the rights of Missouri workers.
The bill also would cap compensatory jury awards and impose lower limits on punitive damages to bring them in line with federal standards. Missouri currently has unlimited compensatory damages and a significantly higher cap for punitive damages. The bill also would tighten whistleblower protection, so that it applies only in cases when an employee alerts authorities to an actual illegal act.
We believe this combination of changes will help create a more business-friendly environment that will allow us to retain and attract businesses at a time when we desperately need the economic activity they generate. At the same time, we continue to provide adequate protection to employees who have suffered from discrimination. This is not a weakening of our employment laws but instead an attempt to bring them in line with federal standards. We hope this will give us an advantage when competing with neighboring states for new businesses.
As work on the budget progresses in the various appropriations committees, the overall budget picture for our state continues to become clearer. Right now our unemployment rate is at 8 percent which is slightly better than that of the national average of 8.5 percent and drastically improved from last year’s record unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. As more Missourians have gone back to work we’ve seen a slight uptick in our revenues. However, estimating future state revenues has continued to be a challenge. The Consensus Revenue Estimate (CRE) for the current fiscal year calls for 2.7 percent growth for a total General Revenue collection of approximately $7.3 billion. For the next fiscal year the CRE agreed to by the House, Senate and the governor’s office calls for growth of 3.9 percent. That would result in total collections of approximately $7.586 billion. That figure would represent an increase in revenue collections of $285 million from the CRE figures used for the current fiscal year.
So with what appears to be an increase in revenues for the state some may question why our state is facing the prospect of a budget deficit. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, our current budget is balanced with more than $500 million of one-time Federal Budget Stabilization Funds. Those funds will not be available for our next budget. Combine that with the fact that our state will need to increase the size of our state match for Medicaid funding by some $90 million and you can see how the modest growth in our revenues cannot keep up with the demands of the budget. The budget proposal outlined by the governor during his State of the State Address balances the budget through a series of reductions, cost containment and debt refinancing plans. His budget is also dependent on the legislature passing several changes to statute in order to generate approximately $88.7 million in additional revenue. In the coming weeks we will take a close look at his proposals to determine if they represent changes that are in the best interests of Missouri taxpayers. One thing you can rest assured of is that we will balance the budget this year without increasing the tax burden on you and your family.
Modernizing Missouri’s No Call List
Nearly 2 million Missourians are signed up for the state’s no-call list that is designed to prevent unwanted telemarketing calls. However, while the list has been a huge success in our state, it currently applies only to landlines. As more and more Missourians have transitioned away from landlines to the use of cellular phones, it has revealed the need to change our no-call list to allow wireless numbers to be protected from telemarketers as well. The attorney general’s office, which is responsible for maintaining the list, says it fielded more than 22,000 calls in 2011 complaining about unwanted telemarketing calls. Many of those calls went to Missourians’ cell phones. This year we hope to protect all phone users, both landline and wireless, from these undesirable solicitations. Bills in both the House and Senate are making their way through the process that would expand the no-call list to include cell phones and also prohibit telemarketers from sending text messages or images to a cell phone. It’s a change I think all Missourians would appreciate. I will do my best to keep you updated on this issue as session progresses.
There were several visitors to the Capitol this week. On Tuesday, January 31, 2012, several individuals with Ozark Electric Cooperative stopped by my office. I appreciated to opportunity to visit with David Trogdon, Jim Crouch, Jim Stine, Earl Carpenter, all on the Board of Directors; and Patrick Oehlschlager, Division Manager, Member Services.
On February 1, 2012, Ashley French, Ozarks Regional YMCA; Mary Kromrey, Ozarks Regional YMCA; Stephanie Currao, Ozarks Regional YMCA; Andrea Bishop, Ozarks Counseling Center; Paul Blackwell, ALS Association, Keith Worthington Chapter; Kathryn L. Hope, PhD, RN, Missouri State University; all Missouri Foundation for Health grantees from the Southwest District. They gave an update on their organizations and on the grants they received from the Missouri Foundation for Health.
Pictured left to right: Mary Kromrey, Andrea Bishop, Ashley French, Stephanie Currao, Dr. Kathryn Hope, Rep. Charlie Denison, Paul Blackwell
On February 1, 2012, Jeff Robinson, Southwest Area Manager, OATS, Springfield, was at the Capitol visiting legislators. I appreciated the opportunity to visit with Jeff about the service OATS provides to the citizens of southwest Missouri.
Also, on February 1, 2012, I met with Paul Ebisch, President/CEO), Assemblies of God Credit Union. I am grateful for the information provided by Mr. Ebisch and for our visit.
Pictured left to right: Rep. Charlie Denison, Paul Ebisch
I look forward to hearing from you, and if you will be in Jefferson City, please stop by my office. If you ever have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact my office. Best wishes.