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House sends Romine’s discrimination bill to Greitens

Republican leaders stave off amendments from own party

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – One of the most controversial measures of the 2017 session will head to Gov. Eric Greitens’ desk after a long, deliberative six-hour debate on the House floor Monday evening.

SB 43, which makes substantial changes to the Missouri Human Rights Act, needed to get out of the House without any amendments attached to get to Greitens’ desk this session as time ticks down to 6:00 p.m., May 12, when session constitutionally comes to an end. If the bill had been amended, it would have gone back to the Senate, where Democrats in the upper chamber could have filibustered it while the body has yet to deliberate many other contentious pieces of legislation.

Rep. Joe Don McGaugh (background) testifies with Rep. Kevin Austin (fore) on the House version of the discrimination bill in 2017. (Travis Zimpfer/THE MISSOURI TIMES)

The passage of SB 43 by a margin of 98-30 kicks off the start of the last week of the session and puts another notch in the legislative belt of pro-business groups like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, who believe the bill will address a growing concern with “frivolous” discrimination lawsuits.

“It was a priority for us and it’s been a priority for us for over a decade,” House sponsor Rep. Joe Don McGaugh said after session. “When you talk to the business community, the examples that they share are pretty broad with the number of people who come in and say, this was a real factor for businesses coming into the state. So, hopefully, it has a pretty quick impact.”

Rep. Kevin Engler, who has carried the legislation in the past, noted during floor debate the bill was needed to ensure Missouri remained competitive with other states.

“Privately, this is a number one cost driver,” Engler said. “We have to make Missouri a better place to bring jobs and development and workers.”

Bipartisan opponents to the bill, however, strenuously argued the measure would instead give those discriminated in the workplace for their age, sex, race, or religion little legal recourse to sue the employers that discriminate against them. The bill also removes provisions that would prevent the actual discriminating party – be it a supervisor or fellow employee – from being named in the case, which horrified Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin.

“What this bill does in its current form, the person who hung the noose in somebody’s locker, that person doesn’t get named in this case in this bill,” White said, citing a specific discrimination case in which a white employee racially discriminated against a black employee.

On top of those concerns, the road to the passage of the bill has been nothing short of dramatic. The Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Gary Romine, has a company currently facing a discrimination lawsuit, which McGaugh called “an optic that’s been difficult to overcome for the bill” last month. Rep. Bill Lant cut the microphone of NAACP President Rod Chapel during committee testimony on the House version of the bill, which caused enough of a controversy to effectively halt all action on the House’s iteration.

However, the bill will soon sit on the governor’s desk, and with a simple stroke of the pen, it will become law after nearly a decade of effort by House Republicans.

“This has been ten years in the making,” McGaugh said when introducing the bill. “It’s a real shame we haven’t done more before this, but today we can actually make a change that will help our employers.”

McGaugh had special thanks for Reps. Kevin Engler, Dean Plocher, Kevin Austin, Nick Schroer and Kevin Corlew for their work in helping to pass the legislation.

The state’s most prominent business group, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, applauded the passage of the legislation.

“Most Missourians want courts that are balanced and fair for all parties, instead of protecting a system that makes a handful of trial attorneys who know how to game a broken system rich,” Missouri Chamber President and CEO Dan Mehan said in a statement. “A balanced system will do much more to end discrimination than an unjust system that compensates fake claims.”

Heavy opposition guides long night of debate

Democrats were much more pessimistic.

“The Missouri Democratic Party believes civil rights should only move one direction, forward,” Missouri Democratic Party Chair Stephen Webber said. “It’s disappointing that the Republican establishment in Jefferson City disagrees.”

Several Democratic caucus members of the House neglected to vote on the legislation at all, including House Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty. She said to her, as a black woman, the decision not to vote was highly personal but said each representative had their own reasons for not voting on the legislation.

“Folks just decided this was a bill that shouldn’t have ever been brought up, and therefore, we chose simply not to vote,” she said. “We felt this bill was just that egregious that it did not merit our participation.”

Several Republicans also voted against the measure, including Rep. Jay Barnes, who criticized everything from the bill itself to the efforts of Republican leadership to pass the bill without amendments to fix what he saw as clear errors in a bill finally agreed on by the Senate in the early hours of the morning after nearly 12 hours of debate in early March.

“If it were February, this amendment would have gone on with a voice vote,” Barnes said of one of his amendments to make substantial changes to the bill. “I think some people in this chamber are more worried about the calendar than the content of this bill.”

Rep. Shamed Dogan, the only black Republican in the Missouri General Assembly, also vocally opposed the legislation.

“This bill just sets me off,” Dogan said on the floor. “The underlying arguments about this idea is that women and minorities have it too good in this state, that it’s to the point we can’t even fire them anymore… The message this will send is that we want to make it easier to fire people in the state of Missouri.”

After the vote and after strong comments from members on both sides of the aisle, McGaugh acknowledged the contentiousness of the bill and said he understood and respected the opposition from fellow Republicans and Democrats. He even noted that a symbolic, withdrawn amendment from Engler to add Missouri Nondiscrimination Act language to the bill had potentially cleared the way for MONA, which would add sexual orientation the list of protected classes under the Missouri Human Rights Act, to have a real shot at passing out of the House early next session.

Despite the protests and his respect for them, McGaugh said the bill was sorely needed for Missouri’s tort climate.

“When you talk to employers where 90 percent of their legal budget is spent in Missouri, that’s a pretty clear indication that something needs to be changed,” he said.