JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Matt Blunt on Tuesday appointed a Southeast Missouri native as chairman of the state Labor and Industrial Relations Commission and also called for legislation to stem abuse of the panel's lucrative pension system.
Blunt's choice as commission leader is Bill Ringer, a Kansas City lawyer who grew up in Dexter and began his legal career there. As chairman, Ringer is to represent the public on the commission, an administrative appeals panel that hears disputes related to workers' compensation claims and unemployment benefits. The panel's two other members respectively represent the interests of labor and business.
During the recent administration of Democratic former Gov. Bob Holden, the commission experienced significant turnover as several members were appointed and then left after short stints, in effect circumventing the Senate confirmation process. Those with prior state service, particularly former lawmakers, departed with drastic boosts in their state retirement benefits.
To erase the perception that a commission spot is a way for a governor to reward of political allies, Blunt, a Republican, proposes requiring appointees to be confirmed by the Senate and serve a minimum of two year before their commission service has an impact on their pensions. Reform bills have been filed in both legislative chambers. They would not apply retroactively to current or former commissioners.
"Under the current system we have today, one day of service on the commission can have a massive impact on your state pension, and that's wrong," Blunt said. "That's a bad system.
Holden's nomination of former Senate Minority Floor Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, as commission chairman in August helped ignite debate on the issue. With his appointment, Jacob's pension jumped from $28,739 to $47,615 a year.
Also, Jacob's close ties to organized labor prompted bias complaints from business groups as he was picked for the supposedly neutral position as the public's representative. Jacob recently resigned the post to become executive director of the local chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that represents many state government workers.
Ringer's appointment could be viewed as the flip side of the Jacob coin.
Ringer, 56, served on the commission as the employers' representative from 1982 to 1986 during the administration of Republican Gov. Kit Bond.
In private practice, Ringer has represented both workers and employers in workers' compensation cases but acknowledged that the bulk of his practice has been in defending businesses.
Blunt dismissed suggestions that Ringer might be biased in favor of employers.
"I'm convinced of his integrity and his understanding that he needs to be the representative of the public and not either side," Blunt said.
Ringer said he is committed to preserving balance on the commission.
"You apply the facts to the case. I know that's simplistic, but that's the way you've got to keep it, Ringer said. "There is no ax to grind. Look at the case on its own merits and then you decide."