Fairness, safety, political shenanigans, economic opportunity and Jim the Wonder Dog all figured in presentations by Saline County's members of the Missouri General Assembly during the annual Legislative Luncheon sponsored by the Marshall Employers Committee.
Money, of course, was connected in some way to most of the topics covered.
Dan Brandt, committee chairman, introduced state Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, and state Rep. Joe Aull, D-Marshall, and explained the purpose of the event.
The break in the legislative session, he said, "is a good time for us to get together and talk about the issues."
The issues this year included changes to workman's compensation laws, to discrimination lawsuit rules, transportation infrastructure needs and opportunities, voter identification requirements, efforts to close state habilitation centers, education funding, redistricting and an effort to have Jim the Wonder Dog named the state historic dog.
Stouffer took the opportunity to make the case for rebuilding Interstate 70, a project that has long been a top priority for the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
I-70 has gotten more attention this session after the Missouri Department of Transportation floated a proposal to finance the rebuilding project by making "Missouri's Main Street" a toll road.
Stouffer said recent testimony in hearings suggests the toll road idea is not gaining enough support, and he said the bill probably would not leave the committee.
He favors setting up two committees, a select committee of citizen leaders and a legislative committee, and having both groups travel the state holding public meetings to get input from voters.
"Folks are going to have to vote on whatever we put out there, and they're not ready," he said. The series of public meetings could "find out what people want and how they want to pay for it."
Stouffer believes the state is at a crucial point in its history, and its future economic hopes hinge on whether transportation assets can be capitalized on.
"I believe we're at one of those 100-year decision points," he said. "We can be the distribution center for the nation."
He ticked off the state's transportation assets -- two major rivers, two major rail centers, two major airports and a network of interstate and four-lane U.S. highways.
I-70, the first interstate highway built in the nation, is the heart of it all, and "it's worn out," he said. "Our parents and grandparents built the interstate system, and we've used it up."
Stouffer also noted the needs of the state's bridge system. As the recent replacement of 800 bridges is nearing completion, there are still many more bridges that need attention, including the bridges over major rivers, which are not being replaced fast enough.
"Infrastructure ... (is) one of the fundamental things government is supposed to do," he said. "It's the lifeblood of our economy."
Saline County Presiding Commissioner Tom Stallings asked whether the legislature was considering implementing an Internet sales tax.
Some "brick and mortar" businesses have advocated instituting a tax on Internet sales, arguing the lack of sales tax gives online businesses an unfair advantage.
Stouffer said it's an issue that needs to be addressed, but he said it ought to be dealt with at the federal level. If Missouri implemented an online sales tax but other states didn't, it would drive business away from the state, he said.
Stouffer also mentioned two changes in workers' compensation laws that are working through the legislature.
One is a fix intended to include occupational diseases under workers' compensation. Currently, those cases are settled in the courts. The legislation would also limit employee lawsuits against co-workers.
Stouffer said both changes were meant to make the workplace safer and to make Missouri more competitive in attracting businesses.
Another workplace bill would change the requirements for labeling a firing as discriminatory. In recent years, Missouri law says a firing qualifies if discrimination was a "contributing" factor. In the last, discrimination had to be a "motivating" factor in the dismissal.
Stouffer said returning to the "motivating" factor requirement would bring Missouri law into line with federal law and would level the playing field with surrounding states.
Both the workplace discrimation and workers' compensation bills have been approved by the legislature and are on the governor's desk, though Stouffer said he wouldn't be surprised if Gov. Nixon vetoes both.
After Stouffer finished his remarks, Brandt took the opportunity to thank both legislators for their service and for taking the time to speak with constituents at the luncheon each year.
Stouffer and Aull were both elected in 2004 and because of term limits will be ineligible to run again, so this was their last appearance as legislators at the luncheon.
Brandt presented each with a plaque expressing the committee's appreciation.
Aull then ticked off a number of issues that are high on the legislature's priorities, starting with the budget, which will be very tight again this year, he said.
He said funding for K-12 education should remain flat this year, but the legislature will have to deal soon with the school funding formula or it will soon provide some districts with more funding and cut others, creating disparities that will make tough times even tougher for some districts.
He noted budget cuts to higher education funding proposed by the governor had been restored by the legislature but at the expense of services to the blind.
"It's tough we have to make decisions like that, between education and services to the blind," he said. "Sometimes you have to do things like that."
He noted the budget includes a 2 percent raise for state employees who make $70,000 per year or less. There are differences to be ironed about when the increase will go into effect.
Aull said another important issue for his district --efforts to close the state's habilitation centers -- is back on the table this year.
Aull said he strongly opposes any effort to close Marshall Habilitation Center and other similar facilities.
"People who can live in the community are living in the community," he said. "There are people who need to live in a habilitation center. They need to be in that setting and will always need to be in that setting."
He said he also opposed a bill that would require driving tests to be administered in English.
He conceded that probably most members of the audience would support that requirement, but he explained his opposition.
"I think everybody who moves here ought to learn English," he said. "But if we only administer in English, is that going to stop people from driving? I think they're going to get behind the wheel and drive. They're not going to have insurance. When they have a wreck, who's rates are going to be affected? We've got to be flexible and not shoot ourselves in the foot."
Aull said the fair tax proposal is being considered again. Before it can be implemented, voters will have a chance to weigh in on the matter.
Aull said he opposes the move and urged the audience to learn all they can about the possible consequences of the proposal.
Aull touched on the still-unresolved redistricting situation, marveling that candidates are filing to be on the ballot while district lines remain unsettled.
He said it does appear likely that new districts will stay in place in spite of court challenges.
He decried the political motivations that influenced some of the new boundaries.
"It's all about politics," he said. "They were drawn to get re-elected. That's not the way it ought to be."