One of the most potentially volatile issues facing the Missouri legislature was passed out of the House last week, in right-to-work. Last week the leader of the Missouri Senate told reporters he has doubts right-to-work can become law over a likely veto by Governor Jay Nixon (D), but said he would move it through the legislative process in the Senate.
On Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) elaborated a great deal about his feelings on an issue he doesn’t actively push, but says he won’t stand in the way of.
Those feelings stem in part from relationships he says he’s grown up with and represented for the past 15 years, “and a number of them are union members or from union families,” he said. “Whereas I’ve worked on a lot of legislation that I never would have had the support of labor on but I thought was an issue that needed to be addressed, like second injury fund or things that we’ve done in workers’ compensation, those relationships have never gotten in the way of me doing my job and they won’t in this case.”
Dempsey reiterated he is not a staunch supporter of right-to-work.
“It’s not been one that I’ve been excited to take on, and it’s for a couple of different reasons,” Dempsey said. “One is I believe that there’s a reason for the formation of the unions. There were people back in the 1900s that exploited workers. Those people needed a voice and the unions helped provide, really, the impetus for an improvement in working conditions that we all enjoy. I am appreciative of that because I know that I am the beneficiary of many of the laws that are in place that they advocated for.”
Of the arguments made by right-to-work supporters, Dempsey said, “I also look at the state of Missouri and this competition that we have both with other states, and really internationally, to try to lure companies to Missouri, to help those who are in Missouri grow, and to help people who are looking at the cost of doing business in other states but they’re located here, and give them reasons to stay here. There are projects that I believe Missouri has, I believe, lost out on and sometimes the very first question asked was, ‘Are we a right-to-work state?’ So, we’ve been disqualified from those projects.”
Dempsey says right-to-work isn’t the only issue he says is raised when discussing Missouri’s business climate.
“There are also other issues related to the level of taxation in the state of Missouri, our legal climate: I think we’ve got one of the worst legal climates in the country. The regulatory hurdles that someone has to cross over in order to make investment. Having an educated workforce,” said Dempsey.
Right-to-work’s passage out of the Missouri House last week was historic. It marked the first time the issue had been passed out of either of the state’s legislative chambers. Dempsey and others have noted, however, the long road the issue has before becoming law.
“With a Democrat governor and the numbers that I saw in the House and where I believe we are in the Senate, I think we could possibly pass the right-to-work bill, but I don’t think in any way, shape, or form, we’d be able to override a governor’s veto,” said Dempsey.
Dempsey said he hasn’t decided how he will vote on right-to-work, but says when he has sought leadership positions in the House and Senate he has recognized that many of his caucus’ members support it.
Dempsey said, “I’ve not been someone who’s been an unabashed supporter of right-to-work, so in conversations I would have with them in their districts I said, ‘Listen, I know this issue’s important for you. It’s a tough one for me but I won’t use my position to block something you care about.’ As far as the Senate President position meant, it meant that there would be a committee that would be able to seriously consider it and potentially move it forward out of committee, and then ultimately it would mean that I be willing to place it on the calendar for consideration by the body on the floor of the Senate, and so I’m committed to doing both of those things.”
Dempsey also acknowledged the divisiveness of right-to-work and the lasting impact that could have on the still young session.
“There’s a lot of stuff we want to get done this year. Things that are important, like the student transfer bill that we’re working on this week,” said Dempsey. “I don’t want to blow this place up.”
Dempsey said he thinks “we all recognize” that supporters would have to use a “previous question” for the Senate to vote on right-to-work. A previous question is a motion that shuts off debate and forces a vote on an issue. A PQ, as it’s often called, is common in the state House, but in the Senate, where members are expected to respect one another’s right to speak on an issue, the motion is used rarely and can sour relations between factions.
Dempsey suggested he would be reluctant to see such a motion used, “On something that, and this is my opinion, that I have serious doubts about its ability to get done this year.”