The Missouri Senate gave final approval Thursday to legislation aimed at changing the state's rules for lawsuits that deal with workplace discrimination.
Senators backed the bill in a 23-8 vote along party lines, sending it to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who vetoed a similar bill last year and has expressed opposition to this year's version. Democratic lawmakers are counting on Nixon to veto it again, though he hasn't explicitly said he will do so.
The measure would require workers who bring wrongful termination lawsuits to prove discrimination was a "motivating factor" - not simply a contributing factor - in the employer's action. The legislation also would apply to other wrongful discrimination actions, such as the denial of promotions.
In cases where employers were found to have wrongfully discriminated, punitive damages would be tied to the number of employees the company has, with a maximum of $300,000. Political subdivisions, such as city governments, would not be liable for any punitive damages.
The Senate vote came after Democrats spoke against the bill for five hours Wednesday, saying they feared it would reverse decades of hard-fought civil rights gains.
"I believe with every part of my being that there are vulnerable people who are challenged, who have things taken from them," said Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County. "I believe that if this bill goes into effect that we will have a justice system where those people would not have an avenue to go through."
The Democrats did yield the floor Wednesday night, but senators could not vote on the measure until Thursday because it first had to clear a financial review committee. An estimate included with the bill says the state Commission on Human Rights stands to lose $1.2 million in federal civil rights funding, because the bill's changes would make Missouri law different from federal standards.
As the bill worked its way through the legislative process, Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, insisted that bill's changes would make Missouri's law more similar to federal law.
Lager called the fiscal estimate a "blatant lie" and said the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations - of which the Human Rights Commission is part - had inflated the potential cost of the bill because it disagreed with its proposed changes.
Lawmakers in both houses have become wary of approving bills that cost the state any money as its budget has tightened in recent years.
The Associated Press obtained letters sent in January to the Human Rights Commission in which the potential financial costs were outlined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agencies said Missouri's legislation could be "inconsistent" with the federal Fair Housing Act and the state Human Rights Act because the "motivating factor" standard in the bill means discrimination must be intentional. That, they wrote, could prevent people from filing claims in "disparate impact" cases, where a certain minority group is disproportionately affected.
The HUD letter also said the punitive damage caps could apply to housing discrimination claims, which would be "inconsistent" with the Fair Housing Act.
In the version of the bill approved Thursday, lawmakers appear to have added provisions aimed at assuaging those concerns. The legislation appears to exclude disparate impact cases from the motivating factor standard and excludes housing claims from the punitive damage caps.
Workplace Discrimination bill is HB1219