JEFFERSON CITY — Frustrated by a perceived lack of success at a Missouri Capitol that professes job creation as its top goal, more than a dozen representatives from businesses began meeting last summer to develop a winning strategy for 2011. Over the several months that followed, they winnowed their shared goals to six initiatives that were among the least likely to immediately harm the state's feeble finances.
But as every good retailer knows, even the best plans can fail without a catchy marketing campaign.
It was Dan Shaul, the director of the Missouri Grocers Association, who hit upon the slogan that has since enchanted Missouri's Republican-led General Assembly.
"I said, 'We're just trying to fix things that are broken that aren't going to cost money, let's keep it simple — 'Fix the Six,' " Shaul said.
"I looked across the table at him, and I said, 'That's brilliant!' " said Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "It just kind of had a little song to it."
At of the midpoint of Missouri's annual legislative session, the business community's "Fix the Six" agenda has fared remarkably well. Five of its six priorities already have passed the House; half have cleared the more deliberative Senate. And Republican legislative leaders in both chambers cited their progress on the business agenda as their top accomplishments so far. Lawmakers are to return from their spring break Monday for the second half of their session that ends May 13.
The "Fix the Six" slogan refers to six legislative proposals. The top item would restrict people's ability to bring workplace discrimination claims. The second would modify a 2005 business-backed law that made it more difficult for employees to win workers' compensation claims. Both are touted as ways to reverse court decisions that business leaders contend have eroded the original intent of state laws.
Other prongs of the business agenda would phase out Missouri's corporate franchise tax; eliminate an annual inflationary adjustment to Missouri's minimum wage that was approved by voters in 2006; reduce the potential liability to businesses in personal injury lawsuits; and tweak the state's bonding ability to repay $825 million borrowed from the federal government for unemployment benefits.
The changes are backed by a coalition that — in addition to the state chamber and grocers' group — includes the National Federation of Independent Business, Associated Industries of Missouri, the Missouri Merchants and Manufacturers Association, groups representing general contractors and restaurants, and regional business groups from St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield.
"All the business groups came together," said House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville. "They basically said to us that if you can fix these six problems that we think we can create jobs."
Jobs continue to be a concern in Missouri because the unemployment rate remains around 9.5 percent. From January 2010 to January 2011, Missouri gained about 1,000 nonfarm jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis. But since employment peaked in February 2008, Missouri has lost 168,000 jobs, according to figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Whether the business agenda actually will create jobs is debatable.
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy says the "Fix the Six" agenda is designed to cut costs for businesses, but he says that doesn't necessarily translate to additional jobs.
"It's very interesting that you would call 'job creation' squeezing workers, reversing civil rights standards, going after wages, making it harder for those that are hurt at work to actually have some recourse to take care of themselves after they can no longer can work," said Talboy, D-Kansas City. "That's not exactly what I would call a job creator."
Talboy noted that bills providing tax breaks to computer data centers and science and technology companies have yet to receive debate in either the House or Senate. Both of those proposals also are backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, though they are not part of the "Fix the Six" campaign. The chamber also is backing a newly proposed tax break to help make Lambert-St. Louis International Airport a cargo hub for international countries such as China.
Efforts to expand state tax credits have seen limited success in the state Senate, where some lawmakers instead want to scale back the state's tax credits and subject them to greater legislative control.
Mehan said the proposed tax breaks weren't included in the "Fix the Six" package because their potential to affect the state's budget made them more controversial. He contended that the items in the package are still substantial changes.
But there isn't consensus on that description.
"We're not trying to change anything," Shaul reiterated. "We're just trying to fix them."
Shaul's slogan might help that happen in the Legislature. But if the business bills reach Gov. Jay Nixon's desk, it most likely will be because the various businesses groups forged a common agenda.