Speaker Todd Richardson will gavel the House to order Wednesday to start the 2017 legislative session, and economic development will dominate his agenda for the coming year and his final term in the General Assembly’s lower chamber.
In his last two months in office, Gov. Jay Nixon has attempted to shore up his legacy by touting strong economic indicators, like the state’s low unemployment rating (4.7 percent as of Dec. 2016), advances in advanced manufacturing output and the emergence of St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and St. Joseph as major destinations for start-up businesses.
However, Richardson stresses that while the state has improved in the past eight years, he believes that more can be done in some areas, especially when it comes to wage growth and underemployment. In a survey of Missouri’s seven largest counties, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that while Greene, Boone, Clay and Jackson Counties all performed at or better than the national average in wage growth from 2014 to 2015, wages in St. Louis and St. Charles Counties and St. Louis City all grew far slower.
“We haven’t made progress at a rate that’s as fast as we’d like,” Richardson said.
To achieve that progress, Richardson will earn a coveted accolade in Republican circles when he becomes the speaker of the House that made Missouri a right-to-work state. Since Republicans captured the majority in 2003, many legislative leaders have made Right-to-Work and labor reform a major priority. However, there hasn’t been a supportive Right-to-Work governor until next week.
With Gov.-elect Eric Greitens waiting in the wings, Richardson is set to go down as the Speaker that made it a reality. With that change in state policy, Richardson hopes to see more choice for workers as well as burgeoning business interests in Missouri. The Poplar Bluff representative also leads a caucus of Republicans from southeast Missouri who have pushed for that legislation after seeing Tennessee and Arkansas win businesses that could have come to the area. Sikeston-based Rep. Holly Rehder is the sponsor and author of this year’s right-to-work bill and in 2016, she sponsored the paycheck protection bill.
In an editorial in The Missouri Times Magazine, Richardson writes “Missouri is… one of the last states in the region not to give employees the freedom to decide whether or not they want to join a union. Voters overwhelming elected a Republican governor largely campaigning on labor and legal reform over a candidate who supported the status quo on both fronts.”
“The voters have spoken and it is time for us to act.”
Aside from the biggest priority on his docket, the Speaker would like to see more regulatory reform to “remove some of the hurdles that government has created” and increased educational investment for a better-trained workforce.
With a litany of potential tax cuts and tax credits in pre-filed legislation, the Republican caucus will continue to keep an eye on where and how it can continue to cut taxes for Missouri citizens. Yet with a Republican-dominated legislature and a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, some Missourians have feared that the Show-Me State could become the next Kansas, which has had to significantly cut funding for higher education, elementary and secondary education and other essential services due to steep revenue cuts from deep tax cuts. Kansas has not seen the expected revenue growth from the glut of new businesses that were supposed to come into the state.
Missouri itself has felt the tug of revenue drought in the past year with Nixon making withholds late into his final year in office with more expected from Gov. Eric Greitens. However, Richardson says that Missouri will not follow in Kansas’ footsteps due to how the Missouri legislature approached its own income tax cuts three years ago with then-Sen. Eric Schmitt’s SB 509.
“There were some very specific revenue triggers in that piece of legislation to guard against that boom and bust economic cycle that you see in [Kansas and] some of these other states,” Richardson said. “We want to make sure we have the revenue to provide for critical state services.”
Part of the problem revenues have shored up is because Medicaid has gobbled up a larger percentage of the pie. Medicaid made up nearly $10 billion of general revenue funding in the 2016 budget. Richardson wants to focus on achieving better health outcomes with more focus on prevention of illnesses and health problems rather than treatments.
Nevertheless, the current state of health care costs in Missouri is a significant problem.
“We are experiencing explosive growth in the amount of money we are spending on Medicaid and unless we’re able to bend that cost curve, we’re going to continue facing challenging budget environments in Missouri,” Richardson said.
Yet in five short months when May becomes June, the Speaker will look back at this legislative cycle and see that all of his wildest dreams from the past few years have come true. Nixon no longer stands between Richardson and the conservative Republican agenda, and reforms that have eluded Republican leadership the past few years only need to be put in ink. That fact alone could qualify Richardson as one of the most important speakers in the history of the statehouse.
With that success comes the opportunity for mobility. Richardson has been floated for Missouri’s 2018 U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. While the leap from state representative to Washington’s upper chamber is rare, many within political circles have acknowledged that Richardson has the name recognition within the state to make a convincing run.
The Speaker stresses that the office he currently holds occupies all of his attention, but he did not completely rule out a run.
“I’m focused on the job in front of us. Being Speaker of the House is a big job, an important job, and a job my caucus elected me to do and that 35,000 people back at home have sent me to do,” he said. “Somewhere down the road, I’ll take a look at 2018. But right now, I want to make sure nothing takes away from my focus on being speaker of the House and representing my district.”