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Our Opinion: Uncover, end discrimination in state government

Our Opinion: Uncover, end discrimination in state government

December 15th, 2016 by The News Tribune in Opinion Editorial

When Gov.-elect Eric Greitens takes office in January, one of his first actions should be to address problems in Missouri's prisons.

The Pitch, a Kansas City newspaper, published a story by investigative reporter Karen Dillon on Nov. 22 that examined more than 60 lawsuits against the Corrections department. Between the suits and interviews with current and former employees, they found that it is a "demeaning, even dangerous place to work." Much of that revolves around sexual harassment.

In a subsequent story, the News Tribune found that Missouri government spent more than $3.5 million in damages in 2015 and 2016 alone to settle 25 employment discrimination cases. Those cases span state government, but Corrections appears to have a particular problem. Since Jan. 1, 2015, 15 new cases have been filed against the department.

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In a multibillion-dollar budget, a few million might seem like small potatoes. But to paraphrase former Illinois politician Everett Dirksen: A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

It's about more than wasting taxpayer money. It's about ensuring department leaders promote a positive work environment. The message needs to be sent from the top down that a culture of discrimination, sexism or other forms of harassment won't be tolerated.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway said on Friday that her office will audit the state's Legal Expense Fund, used to pay for lawsuits against the state. House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, asked House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, to probe the problem, find solutions and hold department leaders accountable.

That's a good start. But leadership on the issue should start at the top — in the governor's office.

Outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon declined comment on the issue last week, saying he had not been involved in the details of the cases.

When Greitens starts, he needs to get involved in the details.

No worker should have to earn a living in a hostile work environment. Corrections workers have tough enough jobs as it is. Many of their jobs come with inherent danger. Plus, they're among the lowest-paid state employees, who are among the lowest-paid state government workers in the nation.

Greitens should take a cue from our president-elect by signaling that to protect good corrections workers, he'll "drain the swamp" on the bad ones.