Most of the big issues this legislative session were tied to the state budget, which has been passed and sent to Governor Jay Nixon. That has many political pundits wondering if the last week of the 2012 session will be anticlimactic. But as St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin tells us, there are still a few hot-button items left to fight over.
Perhaps the biggest unresolved issue this session is workers’ compensation reform. The General Assembly passed a bill earlier this year that was vetoed by the governor – it would have barred employees from suing each other over workplace injuries and illnesses, and would have restored workers’ comp coverage of occupational diseases.
The House has since passed another workers’ comp bill that includes a proposed fix to the state’s financially-strapped Second Injury Fund. GOP Floor Leader Tim Jones says workers’ comp reform is badly needed
“They’re really causing a great deal of uncertainty in our world, in our employment world, and that’s the worst thing you can have in the middle of a recession,” Jones said.
Tom Dempsey, the GOP Floor Leader in the Senate, agrees.
“It’s killing businesses, the lawsuits flying back and forth," Dempsey said. "I continue to hear from businesses in my district about the co-employee liability piece, and it needs to be fixed.”
When Governor Nixon vetoed the workers’ comp bill, he expressed concern that occupational disease victims would be deprived of financial rewards if their cases were taken out of the court system. But in a letter to lawmakers two weeks ago, he indicated he’d be willing to sign the bill into law if it meets certain conditions. House and Senate leaders say those conditions are still being discussed.
Meanwhile, economic development has been an issue hanging over the heads of lawmakers for several sessions. Outgoing House Speaker Steven Tilley hopes that a jobs bill of some sort can be passed this year.
“I think the number one issue in the state is jobs and the economy," Tilley said. "The House has addressed it year in and year out and we’d like to see some movement from the Senate, [and] I think if the Senate wants to work with the House, our leadership team and our caucus will be willing participants.”
That appears to be a long shot at this point, as the House and Senate remain sharply divided over the role of tax credits in the state’s economy.
There may also be a strong push to pass one or more bills dealing with K-through-12 schools, though the House still hasn’t agreed on an overall public school bill. GOP Senator Jane Cunningham says her chamber may take up a House bill passed two weeks ago that would eliminate the so-called “last-in, first-out” policy for laying off teachers.
“And if they hired in Albert Einstein last week, they would have to fire him first," Cunningham said. "No matter how effective he is, by state law now, they have to fire the last ones they hired first.”
Cunningham says the bill would allow schools districts to conduct layoffs based on job performance, not seniority.
Time: the main obstacle
The main obstacle, though, to passing this and all other bills is time. Senator Dempsey says the extra amount of time spent fighting over the state budget could result in fewer bills passing this year than last.
“Because of the amount of negotiation that we’ve put into this budget, the late evenings, there’s a backlog of issues and we’re going to do our best to do the business of the people,” Dempsey said.
Because of that backlog, some lawmakers will turn their bills into amendments and try to tack them onto other bills that are closer to the finish line. One lawmaker who’s already done that is House Member Sue Allen of St. Louis County.
She added language to a Higher Education bill that would shut down the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Several Republican lawmakers accuse the institute of being biased toward Democrats and of using state money to engage in political activity. The bill has already passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.
The regular session ends Friday at 6 p.m.