JEFFERSON CITY • When it comes to a GOP-led charge to make Missouri a “right to work” state, a top Republican is throwing cold water on one of the hot-button issues of the last legislative session.
In an interview with the Post-Dispatch, House Speaker Todd Richardson sounded doubtful that right to work would be a top goal for Republicans when the House and Senate return Wednesday.
“I think you’re going to see debate on labor reform. Whether that includes right to work or not I think is an open question at this point,” Richardson said. “I don’t intend to have another Pyrrhic discussion on right to work.”
Right to work became an explosive issue in both the Republican-dominated House and Senate during the 2015 session. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed the legislation. But, even with strong super-majorities in both chambers, an override failed when 20 Republicans in the House stood with unions, which bitterly oppose the proposed law.
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The measure would prohibit union membership as a condition of employment. Proponents say the changes would help the state attract businesses and therefore increase wages.
Nixon and other opponents argued that the concept would lower wages and lead to a more dangerous work environment for some.
“I don’t think cutting the wages of working people is a solid economic strategy,” the governor said.
State Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said he planned to take another run at right to work this winter. He is sponsoring one of a handful of right-to-work bills that have been introduced in the House and the Senate.
“To me, the problem didn’t go away,” Burlison said. “There are employees in this state who are forced into a situation that is not beneficial to them. This bill will let those employees do what’s in their best interest.”
The key to moving the legislation to Nixon’s desk is getting the measure through the House first. If it wins approval, Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said he’d bring it up for a vote, even though it could mean another battle with Democrats in the minority.
“In an election year, it’s probably a tougher issue,” Kehoe said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a less important issue. If that comes over (to the Senate), that’s an issue you can’t just put in a desk drawer.”
Other election-minded Republicans are pushing for the House to move on the matter again this year.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who is running for governor this year, said following the lead of the other right-to-work states would make Missouri a better place for businesses to locate and bring jobs.
He said the right-to-work overtures being made in Kentucky would mean that seven of the eight states surrounding Missouri are right-to-work states. Labor-heavy Illinois remains the exception, although Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, favors the idea.
“I believe it hastens the day when Missouri makes that move,” Kinder said of Kentucky’s moves.
Amie Needham of St. Louis, a lawyer with the Littler Mendelson law firm, backed up Kinder’s contention, saying one of the first questions companies ask Needham’s firm when they are considering relocating is whether Missouri is a right-to-work state, she said. The answer can send companies looking elsewhere, where worker costs may be lower, she said.
She said the fact that Republicans came close last year might provide enough momentum for them to take up the issue again in 2016.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they took another run at it,” Needham said.
But she also acknowledged that getting a law on the books wouldn’t be any easier.
Richardson said the issue wasn’t dead, but he is hoping the Legislature can find other pro-business proposals to focus on as lawmakers head into the election season.
“I think you’ll see labor reform be part of the agenda, that’s because we want to see an environment where we can compete for manufacturing jobs with the states around us,” Richardson said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not a high priority. I think it’s a reflection of the fact that we want to have an approach that allows us to get something into law,” he added.
That approach is fine with Democrats.
“I’m hopeful we do not spend our time this year on that distraction,” Nixon said.
“If I’m them, I don’t want to go down that road without the votes,” added Senate Minority Leader Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis. “I’m not convinced it’s even going to be an issue this session.
“I don’t see the upside. They’ve already had their vote,” Keaveny said. “Unless they have the votes, we can spend our time doing much more productive things.”
The issue has taken on campaign-style overtones.
On Dec. 16, a new ad campaign targeting the 20 House Republicans who opposed the override was launched by the Committee for Accountable Government in Missouri.
It was financed by more than $1 million in donations from the Joplin-based Humphreys family and includes radio, television, digital and billboard ads targeting each of the 20 in their home areas.
Richardson signaled that the ad campaign hasn’t convinced him to put right to work back in the legislative spotlight.
“Obviously we know kind of where that issue stood back in September,” Richardson said. “I think we’ll continue to see progress on that issue. But whether we can get to a vote count that includes enough members to override a governor’s veto is an open question.”
The bills are HB 1492, HB 1407 and SB 667.
Alex Stuckey of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.