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Legislative session set to begin

Missouri State Rep. Jacob Hummel stands to be recognized on the floor of the House on Friday, May, 13, 2016. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • The effort to repeal legislation that made it harder to sue for discrimination is underway in the General Assembly.

Seven bills - six from Democrats and one from a Republican - have been filed this year that would reverse all of or parts of Senate Bill 43, a major win for Republicans in last year's legislative session. 

"Clearly, backing out of a wrong as significant as Senate Bill 43 is a priority for us," said Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, the assistant minority leader in the House.

Some of the bills focus on housing discrimination, and one would reinstall protections for whistleblowers Senate Bill 43 eliminated. Six of them change the "motivating" standard of proving discrimination back to the "contributing" standard.

Under the old "contributing" standard, for example, if a black plaintiff is fired for being late to work while white employees are not, the plaintiff could contend race "contributed" to the termination. With the new standard, the same employee would need to show race explicitly "motivated" the firing.

Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, a critic of parts of the bill last session, filed a measure to have the "motivating" standard only apply to employment.

The four bills introduced in the House have not reached a public hearing yet, but, on Tuesday, a senate committee heard measures from Sen. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, and Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. If the bills are voted out of committee, which seems unlikely, they could be debated on the floor.

During the hearing, a provision that banned lawsuits against individual employees for discrimination came under fire, and, at one point, the case of Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for molesting scores of gymnasts, was invoked.

That occurred when Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, and Ray McCarty, a registered lobbyist and the president of the Associated Industries of Missouri, which supported Senate Bill 43, were arguing over whether the law let individual harassers off the hook. 

"It is a complete defense to a claim of discrimination in Missouri today to be a natural person," Sifton said. "You understand that, right?"

"No, it's not," McCarty said. "The reason that is in there is to prevent venue shopping from clever attorneys."

"You're saying it is more important to immunize these people than to hold them accountable because you're worried whether it's in this court or that court? ... Each and everyone of those gymnasts now no longer has the right to sue that doctor under Missouri law," Sifton said. "You've immunized that doctor. That's what you did in 43."

"I disagree," McCarty said.

During his testimony, Hummel focused on Senate Bill 43's impact on federal funding for low-income housing. The law caps the amount of money victims of housing discrimination could receive in a lawsuit, which conflicted with federal rules, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official wrote in a letter

As a result, the state has already lost about half a million dollars in federal funding for housing assistance, he said.

"If it’s too extreme for the Trump administration," Hummel said, "it’s too extreme anywhere."

Rep. Bill White's legislation is House Bill 1314

Rep. Gina Mitten's legislation is House Bill 1317.

Rep. Stacey Newman's legislation is House Bill 1851.

Rep. Gail McCann Beatty's legislation is House Bill 1933.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed's legislation is Senate Bill 585.  

Sen. Jill Schupp's legislation is Senate Bill 605.  

Sen. Jacob Hummel's legislation is Senate Bill 620.  

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