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Other legislative issues in limbo as Missouri Senate fights over 'right to work'

Jo Mannies|St. Louis Public Radio

(Updated, 1 p.m. Tues., May 12) Just days before the General Assembly must adjourn, all other legislative issues are being held hostage while the Missouri Senate debates the hottest issue of the session: an anti-union bill known as “right to work.”

The Senate took up the bill Tuesday morning, after a committee voted 5-3 late Monday to send the measure to the floor.  Opponents quickly launched into a filibuster.

In the Missouri House, Republicans came up with the minimum 109 votes needed Tuesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of HB 150, which trimmed unemployment benefits to 13 weeks.  But it's unclear if the Senate will get to a vote.

If GOP leaders in the Senate are able to force a vote on right-to-work, Democrats may decide to block every other piece of legislation and motion made in the Senate the rest of the week. If that happens, one of the casualties could be a bill that enables Missouri to receive more than $3.5 billion in federal funds for hospitals and Medicaid programs.

If the health-care bill isn’t passed by the end of session Friday, lawmakers will have come back and hold a special session to get the matching federal dollars. Any bills sent to the Senate by the Missouri House this week would also likely expire, and any more veto override attempts would likely have to wait until September.

Labor opponents are promising to fill the Capitol with even more than the estimated 1,000 union allies who showed up Monday to pack the halls outside the committee room.

“Right to work,’’ which was rejected by Missouri voters in 1978, would bar unions and employers from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues.

Some business and conservative groups have long sought the legislation, contending that it would make Missouri more economically competitive.

Greg Johns with a group called Missourians for Right to Work, said during Monday's committee hearing, "Missourians must have the right to be able to organize, but they should not be compelled to join. They should have their free agency to join.”

State Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, is the chief sponsor of the bill, HB 116. “It will encourage job growth, make unions stronger for their members, and promote individual freedom for workers across our great state.”

Labor groups contend that the aim is to reduce workers’ wages and benefits, and to curb unions’ political clout. Terry Nelson, secretary-treasurer for the St. Louis area's Carpenters District Council, said that right-to-work backers are trying to use government to interfere in the relationships between businesses and unions.

Teamsters Local 600 president Larry Tinker asserted, “I believe it’s a few individual donors with big money who are pushing this.’’

Not clear if backers have the votes

Although Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in both chambers, it’s unclear if the Senate – or House – can amass the votes needed to overrule a guaranteed veto by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat with close union ties.

The House’s final approval vote of 91-64, taken in February, was 18 votes short of the minimum for a veto override. Both sides disagree on whether House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, has had any luck in rounding up the additional votes. Diehl backs “right to work.”

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis and a union official, said all other major business in the House and Senate is on hold until the Senate either acts or drops the “right to work” bill.

The bill’s biggest Senate backer is Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin. Said Hummel: “I think we’re going to find out whether or not Sen. Richard is willing to blow up the rest of the legislative session for a bill that’s never going to become law.”

Some suburban Republicans in both chambers either publicly or privately oppose “right to work,’’ or would prefer to avoid the issue,  because many of their constituents are union members or retirees.

Dempsey's absence could be pivotal

The political heat has been particularly strong on Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, whose district includes many union members. Teamsters Local 600 president Tinker is among them.

Dempsey has yet to take a position on the “right to work’’ bill, although he has said he will allow a floor vote.

Dempsey could play a crucial role – by his absence.  The Senate leader posted Monday on Twitter that he won’t be in the Capitol on Thursday or Friday because he’ll be out of town to attend his daughter’s college graduation. That means the Senate would need to act by Wednesday for Dempsey to participate in the final vote.

The backers also include state Sen. Mike Parson, R- Bolivar, who chaired the Senate Small Business Committee that reviewed and revised the bill Monday. Roughly 25 people testified during the hearing, the bulk of them opponents of the bill.

Parson, who recently announced he’s running for governor in 2016,  touched off debate right before the hearing began when he briefly sought to bar reporters from recording the proceedings, including recording audio for radio broadcasts.  He dropped the ban for those employed by recognized media outlets, but kept it in place for others in the audience.

Parson also barred any picture-taking by anyone in the hearing room. That didn't stop several people, primarily opponents of right-to-work, from violating Parson's order and posting pictures of the hearing to social media outlets. Senate security staff confiscated the cell phone of a Columbia resident for posting photos of the meeting on Twitter.

Follow Jo Mannies and Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @jmannies  @MarshallGReport

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.

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