March 16th, 2017

Missouri State Senator Ron Richard “Capitol Report” 3/16/17

The Missouri Senate has wrapped up its first half of the 2017 legislative session. To say it has been a productive few months is putting it mildly. The Senate has already passed legislation that will put an end to union-only Project Labor Agreements, reform our civil judicial system, prevent the Department of Revenue from collecting unfair taxes on our consumers and businesses, and help combat the growing prescription drug abuse epidemic. Of course, our biggest achievement this session was making Missouri the 28th Right to Work state, ending forced unionism and helping to create a more competitive business climate. While I am proud of what we have already accomplished, there is much more to be done, including passing a fiscally responsible budget.

The Senate spent a considerable amount of time this week discussing three House measures, with House Bill 251 kicking off floor debate. Also known as the Paycheck Protection bill, this legislation requires public labor organizations to obtain annual consent from an employee before withholding fees from the employee’s paycheck or using any collected fees or dues for political purposes. The act also stipulates that labor organizations must make their financial records available to the employee they represent, in an electronic searchable format. House Bill 251 ensures Missouri’s public union employees are in control of their hard-earned money and are made aware of what political activities their dollars are supporting.

The Senate then moved to House Bill 153, which modifies provisions relating to expert witness testimony. Missouri is one of only a handful of states that has not adopted the updated Daubert Standard, which provides a rule of evidence regarding the admissibility of expert witness testimony during legal proceedings. It also helps ensure that only those individuals who are truly expert witnesses may provide expert witness testimony. Considering expert witnesses have the ability to significantly influence the outcome of cases, it is troubling to know our current statute makes it all too easy for “junk science” to be admitted as testimony. House Bill 153 will allow judges to act as gatekeepers so that juries are not subjected to irrelevant or unreliable testimony. The measure does exclude legal actions in family court, juvenile court and probate court, as well as all other actions or proceedings where there is no right to a jury trial.

Our failure to adopt the updated Daubert Standard has had the unfortunate side effect of calling negative attention to our judicial system and is one of the reasons the American Tort Reform Association recently ranked the City of St. Louis as the “biggest judicial hellhole” in the country. Missouri has clearly fallen behind in this area, and it is well past time we get back on track. House Bill 153 has been passed out of both chambers and should be arriving on the governor’s desk shortly. If it is signed into law, Missouri will become the 43rd state to adopt a standard similar to Daubert. 

The Senate also gave its approval to House Bill 662 to address the misuse of herbicides that has caused devastating crop damage in certain areas throughout the state, particularly in southeast Missouri. Recent reports have surfaced showing some farmers are using an “off label” brand of herbicide for weed control, which is drifting to others farms and causing extensive crop and tree damage. Currently, there is no statute to allow the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) to recover costs for investigating these reports. And even if there was and they found evidence of wrongdoing, we do not have a strong penalty on the books. Essentially, the state has no ability to stop individuals from using the “off label” brand.

Also on its way to the governor, HB 662 grants MDA the authority to investigate complaints of the use of Dicamba, impose fines on those who continue to use it and even revoke certain licenses and permits. With planting season just around the corner, it is imperative to protect our state’s No. 1 industry from any further damage.

Today, the Senate approved Senate Bill 10, a major job training initiative that will help attract new business opportunities to the Show-Me State and encourage existing businesses to expand their operations. Specifically, this measure will make the Missouri Works Training program more user-friendly for businesses that need to train or retrain their employees. While a great program, it is too complicated and cumbersome of a system to navigate in its current form, involving redirecting withholding taxes and onerous reporting requirements. This has the practical effect of discouraging many businesses from taking advantage of it, especially our small and medium-size businesses.

Senate Bill 10 will gradually move us to a system where the Department of Economic Development can provide our community and technical colleges with up-front funding from general revenue appropriations to cover the costs of businesses’ job training projects. For every year the Legislature appropriates more money for job training, a business will be able to reduce the amount of withholding tax they are required to collect. Senate Bill 10 also allows the DED to partner with other entities to advertise, market and promote the Missouri Works Training program.

Job training programs provide workers with enhanced skillsets and attract and retain employers and working families in our communities. Senate Bill 10 appropriately balances incentives with demand to encourage economic growth, and I look forward to seeing it signed into law.

Finally, I was very pleased to meet with representatives of the VOYCE Long Term Care Ombudsman Program at the Capitol this week. These incredible men and women provide advocacy services to the 22,000 individuals who reside in more than 300 skilled nursing, assisted living and residential care communities in Greater St. Louis and northeast Missouri. According to the VOYCE website, more than 50 percent of these individuals have no one to advocate on their behalf.

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