By Eli Yokley
Globe Staff Writer
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
After state lawmakers finish with opening-day pomp and circumstance Wednesday for the 97th General Assembly, they will wake up to a full agenda laid out by the new speaker of the House, Tim Jones.
Jones, a Republican from the St. Louis suburb of Eureka, outlined his legislative goals during a 20-city tour in December. His “Triple E” agenda includes energy law reforms that are important to Ameren Missouri, an investor-owned utility that serves parts of eastern, central and far southeastern Missouri. Also on the agenda are economic and education changes that many Republicans have been pushing for years.
This year, however, there is one key difference.
During the 2012 elections, despite Democratic wins in statewide races, Republicans won a supermajority in the Missouri House. That gives them the potential — with a unified caucus — to pass legislation without the support of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
For many, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that has renewed calls for a bill making Missouri a “right-to-work” state. Such a law is overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats, who have long been supported by labor groups, and it is not a sure thing even among Republicans. Right-to-work laws prohibit contracts that require workers to be union members.
Jones, during an interview from his campaign RV between stops on his statewide tour, said the political reality is that pursuing right-to-work legislation could damage his legislative majority. Republicans won 110 seats in the 2012 election, but after Nixon appointed Rep. Don Ruzicka, R-Mount Vernon, to the Missouri Probation and Parole Board, that majority — at least temporarily — shrank to 109, the minimum number of Republicans required to override a gubernatorial veto.
A special election will be needed to fill Ruzicka’s seat. Until then, that would mean every Republican would have to vote in favor of the bill, which Jones does not think is likely.
“Forcing every single member of my caucus to vote on an issue which many of them feel conflicted on — that’s just not going to be my leadership style,” Jones said.
Instead, he said, there are other ways to “skin the cat” and limit labor’s influence. Jones, as well as his caucus, supports legislation that would prevent labor unions from deducting dues from members’ paychecks, which he called the “ultimate goal of right-to-work.”
Republicans have long pushed these policies, and labor groups have long opposed them. Sean Soendker Nicholson, executive director of Progress Missouri — a progressive advocacy group — called the Republican proposals “political power grabs.”
“The speaker’s revelation of his ultimate goal makes it abundantly clear that paycheck deception bills and so-called right-to-work bills are all about politics, not economics,” he said. “Missourians need their elected leaders to be focused on creating jobs and investing in our future, not nonsense like this.”
Jones also supports changes to Missouri education law that a coalition of conservative Republicans and urban Democrats has backed in recent years. Jones has indicated his support for legislation that would expand teacher evaluations, restrict tenure and increase public support for charter schools.
“Our antiquated, overly bureaucratic education system is the antithesis of innovation and excellence,” Jones said in a letter announcing his proposals. “Teachers should be rewarded for their performance and encouraged to boldly engage in the technological innovations that will create the high-skilled work force of tomorrow that we so desperately need to be creating today.”
Some of those changes — particularly those having to do with tenure and charter schools — have long been opposed by school administrators. Joplin Superintendent C.J. Huff said they are “challenging” issues in the educational community, and he cautioned against jumping the gun legislatively.
“If the issue is about teacher performance — we can already terminate a tenured teacher for lack of performance,” he said. “The tenure piece is really a nonissue from our standpoint because we use the process, and it works if we do it right.”
Huff also said he fears that an expansion of charter schools in the state could be damaging to public schools. Furthermore, he said the competitive nature of charter schools would encourage them to not share their best teaching practices.
Charter schools are basically public schools that are operated like private schools. They are run by independent boards and supported by the state.
“When I was a farmer,” Huff explained, “every Sunday I’d sit shoulder to shoulder with other farmers in the area. After the sermon was over and we walked out of church, we stood around for an hour after church discussing best practices in farming and what we can do to increase yields.
“We came together to share ideas in a noncompetitive type of way,” he said, making the point that he fears charter schools could be “detrimental” to education innovation.
TIM JONES, the new speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives, is expected to officially announce committee chairmanships and committee assignments later this week.