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Gubernatorial race between Greitens and Koster heats up

Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and nonprofit CEO, delivers a speech on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at his campaign office in Crestwood as part of his gubernatorial campaign. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Updated at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday with comments from Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.

JEFFERSON CITY • House Republicans sent a controversial proposal to make suing for workplace and housing discrimination more difficult to the governor’s desk Monday, despite repeated condemnations from civil rights groups and Democrats.

Sen. Gary Romine’s proposal, which would require people to explicitly prove their race, sex or other protected status actually motivated their boss or colleague to mistreat them to win an employment discrimination case, overcame a heated Senate filibuster in February.

For about a decade, Missouri workers have needed only prove their status was a “contributing factor” to prevail in court.

For example, if a black plaintiff was fired from a job for tardiness, but white employees routinely showed up late and weren’t fired, the black employee could ask a jury to compare the treatment and contend that race “contributed” to the boss’s decision.

But if Gov. Eric Greitens signs the bill into law, such an employee would need to meet a higher standard: The worker would have to show that race explicitly “motivated” mistreatment through, for example, written documentation of racist comments.

The Farmington Republican’s bill would also preclude suits against other employees, instead forcing suits against companies themselves. It would cap damages for successful plaintiffs based on the size of the company and curb protections for whistleblowers as well.

Republicans supporting the measure said they were merely undoing a decade of overreach by activist judges and trial lawyers who have scared businesses away from the state with frivolous lawsuits and settlements.

“This has turned into a quick buck for trial attorneys,” said Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark. “That’s why they’re fighting it and that’s why we have to overturn it.”

But several representatives disagreed, panning the bill as clumsily written legislation that would be harsher than its proponents were letting on, make it impossible to hold harassers or racists personally accountable and inadvertently eliminate other protections for workers.

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, first argued that the burden of proof was too high because plaintiffs would have to prove that their protected class was the sole reason for their mistreatment.

Bigoted bosses could evade an accusation of discrimination by claiming an employee coming in late was “the motivating factor” for a firing, he said. Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, criticized a part of the proposal that would exempt individuals from discrimination lawsuits, something he said baffled his constituents.

He accused large out-of-state corporations of wanting the change so plaintiffs couldn’t sue local employees and would instead have to go to federal court, where lawyers are more expensive and cases are more easily dismissed.

“To say that a foreign company automatically gets to go to federal court at the expense of our people not being able to face the person that’s doing the discrimination is totally inappropriate,” he said.

And Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, claimed that the bill would void several special protections for certain kinds of employees, like hospital workers who refuse to perform abortions.

“Don’t call yourself pro-life and vote for this bill,” Barnes said.

But House bill handler Rep. Joe Don McGaugh, R-Carrollton, was able to convince the chamber they were exaggerating the measure’s impact. Each proposed change to the measure was voted down.

Adopting any amendment would have sent the proposal back to the Senate, where a fatal Democratic filibuster would likely have kept it from another vote before session ends at 6 p.m. Friday.

Barnes and White castigated the chamber for being a “rubber stamp” for bad Senate legislation, but to no avail.

Republicans had already endured considerable criticism for their efforts on the bill.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development told the Post-Dispatch last month the measure could make Missouri law inconsistent with the federal Fair Housing Act, jeopardizing about $600,000 in federal money that goes to local civil rights agencies.

And Democrats had emphasized Romine’s legal situation — his rent-to-own furniture chain was sued for racial discrimination in 2015 — any chance they got.

Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, made an impassioned speech before the final vote, beginning with some of the racial slurs that a plaintiff said a manager in Romine’s store used toward black employees, including several with the N-word, before making a final appeal.

“This bill is wrong,” he said. “I should not ... be forced to press a button about making discrimination harder to prove.”

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, echoed those concerns.

“In 2017, the Missouri Legislature should have a no-tolerance stance against discrimination,” she said. “Gutting the Missouri Human Rights Act undermines what should be a common-sense way to deal with discrimination, harassment and intimidation in the modern day workplace.”

But the House shrugged the concerns off, nixed a final amendment and voted 96-30 in favor of the legislation. Many Democrats abstained.

Former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed similar bills in 2011 and 2012.

But Monday’s vote marked the third time this year the legislature has sent a measure aimed making the courts more business-friendly to the new Republican governor’s office.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday urged the governor to reject the bitterly partisan effort, despite its support from business groups that also backed Greitens' campaign last year.

"The Republicans have caught a lot of fish this legislative session," said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, referring to high-profile wins such as the passage of a "right to work" measure in February. "What we're asking for him to do is throw this particular fish back in the pond for the betterment of being able to work across party lines."

A spokesman for Greitens was not available for comment Monday or Tuesday, but Greitens has previously condemned Missouri’s legal system as a paradise for crooked lawyers preying on businesses, offering an impassioned attack on Missouri’s legal system as a paradise for crooked lawyers preying on businesses.

"We’re the place where the nastiest lawyers come to do work so dirty, and engage in lawsuits so murky, they wouldn’t pass muster anywhere else," he said in his State of the State address in January. "What does this do? It scares away businesses. It means fewer jobs and smaller paychecks."

Austin Huguelet 573-556-6184

@ahuguelet on Twitter

ahuguelet@post-dispatch.com

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