Missouri Governor Vetoes Discrimination, Workers’ Comp Bills

By | March 19, 2012

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has vetoed for the second consecutive year legislation that would have changed rules for lawsuits alleging workplace discrimination and blocked changes to the workers compensation system also pushed by Republicans and business groups.

The Democratic governor said the most recent workplace discrimination legislation contains the same “fundamental flaws” as a measure he rejected last year during a rally at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. He said protection against discrimination for people with disabilities, women, older workers and minorities should be preserved.

This year’s legislation “is nearly identical to the bill I vetoed last year because it would undermine the Missouri Human Rights Act and decades of progress on civil rights,” Nixon said.

The measure would have required workers who brought lawsuits to prove discrimination was a “motivating factor” and not simply a contributing factor in the employer’s actions. It also would have linked possible punitive damages to the number of employees at a business, with a cap of $300,000. Political subdivisions, such as city governments, generally could not have been forced to pay punitive damages.

Supporters of the legislation said the changes were designed to better align state discrimination rules with federal law.

In a veto message to the Legislature, Nixon raised several specific objections, including to the restrictions on punitive damages against governmental bodies and to a portion that he said would have blocked from liability the individual at a business who commits the discriminatory act. Nixon said the legislation also would have narrowed protections for company “whistleblowers.”

The workers’ compensation legislation would have included occupational diseases under Missouri’s worker’s compensation system instead of allowing lawsuits over those claims. It also would have barred employees who get hurt on the job from suing their co-workers unless the injury was “purposefully and dangerously” caused.

The Republican-led Legislature passed the measures last week before adjourning for lawmakers’ annual midterm spring break. Some of the bills’ backers blasted Nixon’s vetoes.

Associated Industries of Missouri President Ray McCarty said the rejections favored attorneys at the expense of businesses and workers. He said it could hamper economic development efforts. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the vetoes were disappointing, leaving a gap in the state’s workers’ compensation system and a system for discrimination claims that is unfair for employers.

The top Republican legislative leaders, House Speaker Steven Tilley and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, both expressed disappointment and said the vetoes hurt Missouri’s business climate.

Political rivals also quickly chimed in Friday with the two Republicans seeking to challenge Nixon in this year’s elections expressing condemnation. Dave Spence called the vetoes a “disgrace” and said the legislation’s “common sense reforms would have protected small business owners all across Missouri from more frivolous lawsuits and made Missouri a better place to create jobs.” Bill Randles said it is a “case study in why Missouri is the worst state in the nation in terms of business friendliness.”

Both gubernatorial candidates suggested Nixon was protecting campaign donors.

Phil Hess, the president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, praised Nixon for showing courage and said the governor “stood tall for working men and women.”

“Sometimes doing what is right for people, for their rights and for their futures, is not as easy as it seems,” Hess said. “Gov. Nixon is not too friendly with us; he’s simply concerned about the rights of ordinary Missourians, people like our clients.”

Workers’ compensation became an issue after lawmakers set tougher standards in 2005 for injured employees to qualify. The state’s system allows injured workers to get money to cover medical expenses and some lost wages. Lawmakers considered similar workers’ compensation changes last year but could not reach a final agreement.

Occupational diseases can include those caused by exposure to chemicals and toxins and curable injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Nixon said in his veto message that it is wrong to eliminate the right to sue for workers who suffer from deadly work-related occupational diseases, such as a mesothelioma — a type of cancer that can be caused by exposure to asbestos.

The Legislature could override Nixon’s veto and enact the legislation with a two-thirds vote. Republicans have more than a two-thirds majority in the Senate, but fall slightly short of that mark in the House. Both bills passed the Senate with a large enough majority to override a veto, but fell short of the 109 votes needed in the Missouri House.

Even if overriding the vetoes is difficult, lawmakers who handled the bills in the House said there were still options to pursue.

Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said he still thinks the workers’ compensation portion could resurface this spring before the Legislature adjourns in mid-May.

Workplace discrimination is HB1219.

Workers’ compensation is SB572.

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