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Challenges Ahead: Officials mix uncertainty with optimism as legislative session begins

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As a presidential election looms 10 months from now, local and state officials say the outlook for the Missouri General Assembly’s 2024 legislative session is looking like a mixed bag.

Improvements to infrastructure, tort reform and child care are all high priorities for both the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Child care is back under consideration by legislators after a bill that proposed three tax credits for employers failed to reach Gov. Mike Parson’s desk. The legislation, designed to increase access to affordable child care, passed in last year’s session in the state House of Representatives but never reached a vote in the Senate. The tax credit package was designed to benefit child care providers and businesses who help cover the child care costs of their employees.

Kara Corches, vice president of governmental affairs with the state chamber, said the tax credit package bills have been introduced this session by Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, and Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph.

“What we know is that we’re in the midst of a child care crisis and businesses – specifically business leaders – are reporting that child care is a real barrier to their ability to recruit and retain workers,” she said, noting a 2022 survey of business leaders conducted by the state chamber revealed that 80% of respondents identified child care as a hurdle to keep and recruit workers.

Corches said it’s something the chamber views as a commonsense policy.

“If there is not access to child care for that family and those working parents, they can’t go to work, if there’s not a safe and affordable and high-quality place where they can leave their kids,” she said. “It’s about supply and demand. We are hoping that this tax credit package that was introduced last year and is being reintroduced this year will be able to get across the finish line.”

Infrastructure investments
Much like last year, infrastructure investments are near top of mind for local chamber officials. Greg Pearman, an attorney at MVP Law, who also is chair of the Springfield chamber’s legislative policy committee, said the chamber is seeking unspecified state funding for improvements to LeCompte Road on the northeast side of town, as well as $28 million for a facelift of a five-mile stretch of Interstate 44 in Springfield.

Both of the projects were among more than 200 line-item vetoes issued by Parson last year in the process of signing the state’s record-high $51.8 billion budget, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

“Those types of things are very significant to us because we’re such a transportation hub and that’s important to our members and our community,” Pearman said. “We have so much traffic in this particular area. There was some obvious disappointment we didn’t have that included last year.”

One major piece of infrastructure funding approved last year was $2.8 billion to fully expand Interstate 70 to three lanes in both directions across the state.

State Rep. Betsy Fogle, D-Springfield, said she frequently hears from the local and state chambers about infrastructure.

“I’m really proud of the work that the appropriations team did last year to make significant investments in our roads and bridges,” she said. “The expansion of I-70 connecting our major metro areas up in Kansas City and St. Louis and across the state will have significant impacts and I look forward to continuing the conversation about what we can do down in southwest Missouri and I-44. I know that’s something that a lot of the southwest Missouri delegation is really passionate about.”

While the I-44 improvement project was vetoed last year, $20 million was approved for an environmental study of the entirety of the interstate, according to past reporting.

Impactful issues
Fogle noted both infrastructure and child care among her top issues impacting businesses, adding she plans to support the tax credit bill just as she did last year.

“That’s one of the top things that I hear from the Missouri chamber and from the Springfield chamber back home is making sure that people who want to work are able to work and that child care isn’t a barrier,” she said.

Another state chamber priority is improving Missouri’s business climate, particularly by modifying its statute of limitations for personal injury cases to two years from five years.

“What we have found is that our unfair legal climate really hurts our state’s economic competitiveness,” Corches said, noting 47 states have shorter time limits than Missouri. “We are really on the periphery right now in terms of our statute of limitations.”

It’s an issue that state Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield, supports. He has filed House Bill 1964, which seeks to reduce the statute of limitations to two years. A similar bill of his was unsuccessful last year at getting to a vote on the House floor.

“When you allow individuals to sit on their claims for lengthy periods of time, that has an extremely negative impact on our state’s business climate,” Riley said. “This is a big detriment to our ability to grow our state’s economy and bring in new businesses.”

Riley said this year’s General Assembly has several officials running for state offices, which will create productivity challenges in the House and Senate. While not seeking a different state position, Riley, who is up for reelection this year, previously announced he would run for majority floor leader this year. An internal House election will be held the day after the November 2024 general election to pick the leader.

“Without question, this is going to be a challenging legislative session,” he said, adding he remains optimistic that some legislation that largely has bipartisan support, such as child care, can reach the finish line this year. “We’re not going to see a record number of bills passed or anything like that.”

Fogle, who is in the final year of her second term in office, said she goes to the Missouri Capitol hopeful every year that the legislature will do what’s best for its constituents and “put politics aside.

“It’s up in the air,” she said. “I’m not sure how the year will pan out, if I’m being really honest with you.”

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