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GUEST COLUMN: Downturn offers chance to encourage economic innovation

Sunday, December 28, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — The top news stories each week are not mistaken — like every other state, Missouri is feeling the national economic downturn. While our economic diversity makes Missouri more resilient than many states in the nation, reports of plant closings and layoffs are still hitting close to home.

These reports make people frightened and scared for their jobs and way of life. This uncertainty, while understandable, is present among workers and business executives as well as government leaders.

But as many businessmen and women know, opportunity often exists in thinking differently and searching against the grain for innovative ideas. That is why, as leaders in business, government and the legislature, we should not let fear cloud our efforts at growth and prosperity for the state. Rather, we must go against the grain and view this as an opportunity to push our economy forward, and our approach to the 2009 legislative session reflects this perspective.

A new administration, new players in the Missouri Legislature and a starkly different economic outlook than we’ve seen in recent years will make cooperation, not rhetoric, a necessity.

In no case will cooperation need to be used more than in the area of state budget — perhaps the biggest challenge facing our state. Some recent estimates have shown that state tax revenues will be sharply lower this year, perhaps leaving state budget writers with a gap somewhere north of $300 million. As the governor and lawmakers negotiate a budget, it is important to remember that the backbone of the state’s revenue is working Missourians. Thus, sound budget decisions should revolve around creating jobs and opportunities for the state’s 3 million workers who pay taxes and drive our economy.

Toward this goal, the state’s budget-makers should continue to develop innovative ideas and support proven programs that are helping Missouri employers create good jobs. We encourage initiatives and programs that enhance entrepreneurial growth by increasing access to investors that provide for the crucial need for seed and early stage venture capital. The Grow Me State Initiative creates an angel tax credit program to bridge the gap in equity funding, increases funding for the Missouri Technology Corporation, creates a co-investment seed capital fund, and creates a proof of concept-fund program to improve the conversion rate of R&D and innovation into entrepreneurial firms and commercially viable products.

Chief among Missouri’s proven economic development plans is the Missouri Quality Jobs Program. It was estimated last year that since the program’s creation in 2005, the Quality Jobs Program has helped create over 22,000 jobs. And these are jobs that have above-average wages and health-insurance benefits. Many of the jobs are being created in technology companies, small and expanding businesses as well as companies the state has deemed as having a high impact on our economy.

We are also asking for continued support for Enhanced Enterprise Zones, which help the state attract jobs in targeted industries and create vital business clusters. The New Market Tax Credit program is also an essential tool that helps funnel job-creating resources into small businesses in low-income communities. Over the last six months, this program has seen more than $125 million invested in 35 small companies. This has helped the state retain or create 1,700 jobs for Missouri workers.

Quality jobs are of little value without quality workers, as our economic hopes are rooted in having a skilled, highly-educated workforce to push our state forward. The Missouri METS Coalition is a partnership between business people, educators and state leaders to help improve student achievement in math, engineering, technology and science. Over the last two years, state appropriations and donations from businesses have helped bring new technology and hands-on teaching methods to hundreds of Missouri classrooms. One such program is offered by eMints (enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teacher Strategies). This plan brings into Missouri classrooms critical technology such as laptops and smart boards, along with professional development, so educators can make the most of the technology. We are asking our state budget-makers to continue supporting the METS mission, as these investments are truly important to make sure we have the kind of workforce needed to support the technologically advanced industries we are working to attract to our state.

Missouri business leaders will also be closely monitoring how state lawmakers handle Missouri’s current Unemployment Insurance crisis. Missouri currently has roughly $220 million in its unemployment trust fund, which funds unemployment benefits for out-of-work Missourians. It is projected that the trust fund is facing insolvency, possibly forcing the state to borrow from the federal government. While several other states are in a similar situation with their Unemployment Insurance programs, we are looking to Missouri lawmakers to find a unique solution to this problem that does not lay an increased burden on the state’s employers. State lawmakers need to safeguard the fund against fraud while making sure payouts are there for those workers who deserve them. A bad decision that raises costs on employers would likely just lead to more unemployment and a greater demand for trust fund dollars.

The Missouri General Assembly must also ensure the state’s Second Injury Fund remains solvent and able to protect Missouri workers with pre-existing injuries. Last year, lawmakers took a significant step and closed a dangerous loophole that allowed dependents of injured workers to continue to receive payments even after the worker dies. But the Second Injury Fund requires further changes to strengthen the fund’s solvency so it is a viable resource for the Missouri workers who need it.

The Missouri Chamber is also closely monitoring the state’s Supreme Court for a ruling that could negatively impact the state’s Workers’ Compensation system. In 2005, the Missouri Chamber was the leading proponent of reforms to the system that helped root out abuse and inefficiencies and reduce insurance costs for employers around the state. Organizations such as the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) have reported that the 2005 reforms have helped reduce premiums and fraudulent claims. A long-pending ruling in the Missouri Supreme Court could nullify part- or all of these hard-fought reforms. If that happens, the Missouri Chamber will make it a top priority to pass new legislation that will continue the protections and reforms brought by the legislation passed in 2005.

The Missouri Chamber will also continue to support an accessible, affordable, high-quality health care system. We believe any changes to health care in the state must focus on wellness, preventative care and consumer accountability.

During the upcoming session, we will advocate for the review of meaningful health care reforms, including a comprehensive health insurance initiative. We also would push for review of unnecessary current regulatory and legislative burdens so that we do not continue to create government controlled programs that shift costs of the uninsured disproportionately to employers already providing coverage. The Missouri Chamber also supports the development of public/private health care partnerships between providers, insurers, government and employers to demonstrate innovative ways to help employers provide incentives for wellness and maintain health care benefits for their employees.

Energy is also sure to be a central topic during the 2009 legislative session. Reliable power is a basic element of our economic system, and the Missouri Chamber will support ideas to increase our capacity in an affordable, feasible and clean manner that relies on proven methods of production.

In addition, Missouri’s constitution provides the people direct access to changing state laws through the initiative petition process. Ensuring the effective voice of its citizenry will remain the foundation of any free society. In recent years we have seen more and more evidence that singular interests and well-financed, but not as well-intentioned, campaigns have significantly distorted and abused the initiative process. Missourians should be able to trust the very process designed to give them the most direct voice in their government. Abuses like paying for signatures, signature fraud, misrepresentative ballot language are an assault on the free voice of the people of this state and should be corrected through statutory changes in the initiative process.

We recognize that in economic times like today, some leaders will have to fight the natural reflex to greatly hold back and wait for better days to come. The Missouri Chamber believes that we should continue our state’s aggressive work to build our economy. Although it will take strong leadership, these decisions will allow our state to emerge from these difficult days in a strong position to grow and prosper into the future.

Daniel P. Mehan is the president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry (www.mochamber.com) was founded in 1923 and is the largest business association in Missouri, representing almost 3,000 employers providing more than 425,000 jobs for Missourians.


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