By TIM ROWDEN
Jefferson City – Gov. Jay Nixon has named Jefferson County Sen. Ryan McKenna (D-Crystal City) as the new director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial relations.
Nixon named McKenna to the post last week. McKenna will succeed acting Director Julie Gibson, who will return to her previous position as director of the Division of Workforce Development.
The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations promotes industry and labor and protects the rights and safety of Missouri’s workforce. It consists of five divisions: the Division of Employment Security, the Division of Workers’ Compensation, the Division of Labor Standards, the State Board of Mediation and the Missouri Human Rights Commission.
Nixon also announced last week the appointment of Nia Ray, current director of the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) at the Missouri Department of Economic Development, as the new director of the Division of Employment Security. She will replace acting Division Director Ken Jacob, who will become deputy director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
FRIEND OF LABOR
A stalwart friend of labor, McKenna, a member of Laborers Local 110, has represented Jefferson County in the state Senate since 2006, and served as a state representative from 1998 to 2004. He served on several Senate committees, including the Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government Committee.
In addition to labor issues, he spent much of his time in office on transportation. He backed legislation that would have created a one-cent sales tax to fund highway improvements and helped negotiate a compromise on prevailing wage in the last legislative session.
“Ryan McKenna’s solid experience, knowledge and leadership skills will help this department continue to expand opportunities for Missouri families and businesses and move our economy forward,” Nixon said. “The Department of Labor plays a vital role in our efforts to make Missouri a great place to live, work and do business so I am pleased to appoint McKenna to this important Cabinet position.”
McKenna, 40, would have been term-limited out of office in 2014. He said Nixon approached him about assuming the new role.
“I did not seek it. I was called into the Governor’s office and he asked me if I’d be interested,” McKenna said.
That said, McKenna said he felt comfortable stepping into the new role.
“The issues that this department deals with – labor standards, unemployment, workers compensation – are all issues I’m familiar with and I’ve been pretty involved with,” he said.
McKenna’s appointment still requires Senate confirmation, but he was slated to start the job Dec. 18. McKenna will need Senate confirmation by early February – 30 days after the General Assembly reconvenes – to stay in the job.
McKenna said implementing the workers compensation/Second Injury Fund bill that Nixon signed into law over the summer would be one of the first issues the department will have to deal with next year.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Rupp (R-Wentzeville), is designed to address the millions of dollars owed to injured workers through the hitherto insolvent state fund.
The Second Injury Fund provides payments for Missourians whose pre-existing injuries or disabilities are aggravated further through work-related injuries.
For several years, the fund has been unable to pay all the claims it owes, spawning several lawsuits.
The bill signed by Nixon temporarily increases the surcharges that businesses pay on their workers’ compensation premiums, effective Jan. 1, 2014, to replenish the fund and moves certain chronic disease claims back under the workers’ compensation program. A 2005 court ruling had pushed those claims to the court system.
“That will be one of the biggest issues that I have to get involved in right away,” McKenna said.
DISTRICT IN PLAY
McKenna’s 22nd District is among the few political swing districts in the state. A battle already is underway between two declared contenders to succeed him: state Reps. Jeff Roorda (D-Barnhart), business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, and Paul Wieland (R-Imperial).
Both plan to compete in the November 2014 general election. Each also might be expected to compete in a special election, should Nixon call for one to replace McKenna.
McKenna represents the third generation of his family to have served in the Missouri Legislature.
His father, former Senator Bill McKenna, served as President Pro Tem of the Missouri Senate. His grandfather, J. Glennon McKenna, served in the House in the 1940s.
His cousin, T.J. McKenna, is the Democratic state representative from Festus.