From the Field: Working Families in Missouri Face New Challenges as Legislative Session Ends

The 99th general session of the Missouri Legislature came to a close on May 12, sending a total of 75 bills to Governor Eric Greitens (R) for approval. While this represents the fewest approved bills in a single legislative session since 2000, several of this year’s new laws are troubling for low income individuals, working families, and their advocates.

The so-called “right to work” (RTW) was signed into law after decades of lobbying efforts pushing for it. Missouri’s RTW law allows non-union-member employees to opt out of paying dues for representation costs to the union that represents all employees. Labor rights advocates nationwide argue that such measures are a significant blow to a union’s ability to collect revenue to cover its costs, and thereby weakens the union’s ability to operate.  Labor rights advocates are already organizing a petition to add nullification of the RTW law to an upcoming statewide ballot. A similar question appeared on a statewide ballot in 1978, when 60% of voters rejected making Missouri a RTW state.

Workforce challenges this session were not limited to organized labor. In the final ten minutes before the scheduled end of the legislative session, the State Legislature introduced and passed a prohibition on local communities implementing their own minimum wage ordinances. That legislation was in direct response to St. Louis City passing an ordinance for a minimum wage increase above the statewide minimum, as well as to an anticipated citywide vote in Kansas City to do the same.

St. Louis City had implemented a minimum wage increase to $10 per hour beginning May 5 but will now be required to lower it back to the Missouri minimum of $7.70 when the new law goes in to effect on August 28. According to NLIHC’s 2016 Out of Reach report, the Missouri “Housing Wage,” the wage necessary to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, is $14.98 per hour, and the Saint Louis City hourly Housing Wage is $16.15.

This year’s legislative session also introduced a sweeping change to the standard by which an individual must prove a discrimination case. Senate Bill 43 weakened discrimination protections by raising the standard for proving discrimination claims and exempting employers from being held liable for discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Statute. HUD and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission both sent letters warning that, by implementing Senate Bill 43, the Missouri Human Rights Statute would no longer comply with the federal Fair Housing Act, rendering the state ineligible for up to $1.2 million in Fair Housing Act compliance funding. Mr. Greitens is expected to sign Senate Bill 43 into law, but advocates, including Empower Missouri, an NLIHC state partner, the Missouri NAACP, Missouri Faith Voices, and many others, are organizing a campaign for a vote to oveturn the bill in the State Legislature.

Shortly after taking the governorship in January, Mr. Greitens called for a special commission to review statewide tax policy in Missouri. Housing advocates are concerned that resulting proposals may harm the federal and a statewide Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and they are lining up speakers to present at each of four public hearings across the state in May and June.

“While the session has included many setbacks, Empower Missouri celebrates the defeat of some dangerous legislation, like a proposal to block grant or cap Medicaid spending,” said Jeanette Mott-Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri. “Another effort to require renters in dispute with a landlord to establish an escrow account for all payments during the dispute period did not advance beyond committee. Legislation we supported to raise the age at which juveniles are tried in adult courts and incarcerated in adult prisons came close to passing, as did a voucher program allowing low income seniors to purchase fresh produce from local farmer’s markets,” Ms. Mott-Oxford said.

Shortly after the close of the General Session on May 12, Mr. Greitens called the Missouri State Legislature in for a special session on May 22 to consider a jobs bill. “This year continues to provide new challenges,” said Ms. Mott-Oxford. “It is currently believed the Governor will continue to call special sessions to address a variety of items on his campaign agenda, and special sessions in Missouri can last an indeterminate amount of time. We will persist in our advocacy, as we have since 1901.”

For more information, contact Jeanette Mott-Oxford at jeanette@empowermissouri.org