Posted 02/16/2013: This week, the biggest news in the Capitol was the Senate passage of legislation that lawmakers hope will "fix" the state's Second Injury Fund, which compensates certain injured workers. The Senate vote was interesting in its own right, but for me this legislation demonstrated the power of interests groups because the measure includes provisions dealing with one short but controversial phrase: occupational diseases.
The state's Second Injury Fund provides compensation to workers who have previously sustain some kind of disabling injury and then sustain another injury at their job that either partially or fully disables them, preventing them from working. Originally set up to make it easier for injured World War II veterans to find jobs when they came home, the Second Injury Fund takes the risk of previously injured workers out of the worker's compensation system, in the same way that high-risk health insurance pools might be used to provide coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. In exchange for the existence of the fund and the certainty of its payments to qualified victims, the state's workers gave up their right to sue employers for the costs related to their on-the-job injury.The state's businesses supply the fund with cash through a surcharge on their workers' compensation insurance.
The problem is that the fund is insolvent, that is, it has more money in claims piling up against it than money flowing into it. The state attorney general said earlier this year that the fund has debts of $28.1 million and a backlog of 30,000 claims filed by injured workers who aren't being paid. The attorney general's office, which is responsible for defending and administering the fund, has stopped processing claims because of cash flow problems with the fund.
That caused workers to sue the state, claiming that it was not following its own law. The case appears headed to the state Supreme Court, but a lower court ruling a few weeks ago sided with the workers and detailed two possible avenues for recourse if the fund isn't operational: either the state pays the debt from its tax revenue or the law is voided and injured workers could sue their employers for the massive costs of their disability. Lawmakers heard about this and rushed Second Injury Fund legislation to the Senate floor, saying it must pass this year (it has failed in others).
In the middle of all of this, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry insisted that the legislation include provisions lumping claims from occupational diseases into the state's workers' compensation system. Diseases such as mesothelioma are sickening and killing workers, whose families are filing suits against employers, sometimes with high-dollar awards. The Chamber wants such cases put into the state fund to limit the award to a predictable number with the cost borne by all of the state's businesses.
This has been tried before and opposed by Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon, who say that such diseases are so life-altering that the payments offered by the workers' compensation system simply don't suffice.
The legislation was a study in the power of interest groups. On the one hand, Republicans sided with the Chamber of Commerce and pushed for occupational disease provisions. On the other, Democrats took a position previously supported by the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and said such cases should stay in the courts. There was filibuster from the Democrats, but eventually occupational diseases became part of the bill, with provisions to give more benefits to people with especially terrible occupational diseases, such as mesothelioma.
It left me wondering about the power interest groups have in the Capitol. Two years ago, Republicans based their entire initial legislative platform on a plan from the Chamber called "Fix the Six." By the end of last session, then-Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said he could barely recall any of the six planks in that platform. But a few months later, a bill was pushed through with the provisions the Chamber wanted.
A quick search Missouri Ethics Commission records turned up little in the way of direct contributions from either the Chamber or MATA to candidates in the General Assembly. But both groups have strong membership bases that might have made individual contributions to the candidates, which gives them significant influence on key issues like the Second Injury Fund. In the weeks ahead, I'll be looking to see if this is one of the common factors that could apply to my study of legislative factors across states.
One significant factor in the passage of laws in Missouri's legislature is term limits. Enacted by a 1992 statewide vote, term limits in Missouri mean that members can serve eight years in each the state House and Senate. Under a 2002 amendment to those term limits, they might be able to serve more if they fill a partial term.
But the effect of term limits is that people do eventually leave their chamber. According to the Senate's website, the average years of experience in the Senate decreased from 6.7 to 1.85 years after the 2005 legislative inauguration, in part because of term limits (Source: http://goo.gl/uEwpQ).
Those people who do leave usually seek higher office: at least one termed-out state senator ran for statewide office and the current state Senate has many former House members.
I believe the ascension of the latter group and the departure of some of the Senate's longtime fiscal conservatives were key factors in the passage this week of legislation extending five tax credits for charities in the state.
This measure had strong support in the House last year, but was held up by Senate conservatives, worried that the state was spending too much through credits even while it made cuts to appropriations.Those conservatives are gone now and have been replaced by some of the same House members who previously supported the measure, which resulted in it easily passing the Senate and being sent to an apparently receptive House.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states limit the service of their lawmakers (Source: http://goo.gl/kFGbF). In the coming weeks, I'll be searching for stories of similar situations in other states, where term limits might have contributed to the passage (or failure) of legislation, to see if it can be the first of my interstate legislative factors.
As the Missouri Legislature settles into its springtime rhythm, I find myself back in a very familiar place: the state Capitol in Jefferson City, and often times in committee rooms or chamber press galleries covering members two days per week as they work to shape our state's laws.
I've been each of the past two years as a reporter for The Associated Press. In that reporting, I've come to understand the mechanics of how laws are made and the general flow of a session, from the prefiled bills about various topics to the hectic budget process to the sprint in the final weeks of the session, as lawmakers work to turn their proposals from pipe dreams on paper to statute book realities.
This year I have a new title, a new outlet and a new mission. I'm here as a radio reporter for KMOX, working with a group known affectionately around the Capitol as "Phill's kids." And, as I've previously laid out this semester, I come to this building twice each week asking not what will pass, but why.
In addition to this course, I'm taking a class in Columbia about state legislatures under MU political science Professor Peverill Squire. We've only just begun our lessons there, but already I'm forming one conclusion: states are different from each other, but analogous or the same in many ways. Almost every state (Nebraska excepted) has two legislative chambers, for instance. And most states have constitutional provisions requiring their budgets to be balanced (Missouri's is in Article X, Section 20).
Those similarities could be seen as constants that are true even across a number of diverse states. During this legislative session, I want to see if there are any discernible patterns with regard to which proposals do and do not pass Missouri's legislative chambers. I also want to see whether those patterns are related to any of these interstate constants and whether the patterns can be predicted with any accuracy across other state legislatures.
I will have a couple of different testing grounds for this idea over the course of the session. As part of my KMOX work, I am currently following and covering legislation related to voter identification requirements (HB48, HJR5) and the lowering of taxes on business income (SB11).
These measures have analogues in other states (in fact, Missouri's business tax bill was provoked by similar action in Kansas) which means I could conceivably compare them. This will be my academic goal for the semester.
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