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Missouri House passes workplace discrimination bill

Republicans in the Missouri Legislature are again pushing to narrow the state’s workplace discrimination law.

The GOP-controlled House passed a bill today that would require workers to prove discrimination was a "motivating factor" rather than a “contributing factor” in wrongful termination cases. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation in 2012 and 2011.

The legislation now heads to the Senate for approval, but with a 94-55 vote today, the House may not have enough votes to override a veto if it makes it all the way through the Legislature again this year.

Supporters of the bill, which is backed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, say it will encourage job creation and lead to fewer frivolous lawsuits, but opponents say it merely gives a pass to employers who discriminate based on race, religion and other factors.

Rep. Kevin Elmer, a Republican from Nixa and the bill’s sponsor, said that the change would put Missouri in line with federal discrimination standards.

“Right now, the bar is so low that employers are being subjected to years of litigation,” he said. “The standard of review is much lower in Missouri.”

House members debated the legislation for about an hour and a half combined over the past two days.

Rep. Kevin Engler, a Republican from Farmington, told the chamber, “We’ve created an environment in Missouri where businesses don’t want to come here.”

Several Democrats who spoke against the proposal said the state shouldn’t lower the bar on discrimination.

“(This legislation) tells the rest of the country that we think it’s OK to be a little racist,” said Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis. “It’s not OK to be a little bit racist – period.”

Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, questioned whether the current law is actually affecting business development in the state.

“We’re not chasing businesses away,” he said. “It’s a false problem.”

The Missouri Chamber has blamed trial lawyers for the legislation’s defeat in past years.

“Discrimination is ugly and wrong. But tipping the standards so far against employers is also wrong. This bill simply provides justice for both parties,” Chamber President Dan Mehan said in a statement.

The House also approved today legislation that would allow certain school districts to opt out from paying the prevailing wage on construction projects – another move lauded by the Missouri Chamber.

It must also be approved by the Senate and Nixon, or get enough votes for a veto override.

Bill sponsor Republican Rep. Casey Guernsey of Bethany said school districts in rural parts of the state have been putting off construction projects because they can’t afford to pay prevailing wage rates.

“I known schools that will be built - if this legislation is passed – next year,” he said.

Guernsey said districts have been turning to volunteer labor for roof repairs and other necessary maintenance.

“That should be embarrassing to anyone in this state,” he said.

Several House Democrats argued the legislation would have the effect of pay cuts for workers and it would allow projects to be outsourced to contractors from other states. They also characterized the bill as a jab at labor groups.

“It seems to me that this is all about lowering wages,” said Rep. Bob Burns, D-St. Louis. “This almost seems to me like it is Robin Hood in reverse.”

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