JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation Friday that would have changed the legal standard workers must meet when they file discrimination lawsuits against former employers.
Nixon said the measure would have undermined the Missouri Human Rights Act and rolled back decades of civil rights progress.
"The bill would make it harder to prove discrimination in the workplace and would throw new hurdles in the path of those whose rights have been violated," the governor said in prepared remarks. "That is unacceptable, and it stops here."
Lawmakers approved the bill earlier this month, with supporters saying it would benefit the state's economy.
The legislation would have required workers who claim discrimination in wrongful firing lawsuits to prove that bias was a "motivating" factor, not just a "contributing" factor as is now the case. It also would have limited punitive damages, ranging from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of the company. Similar limits would have applied to whistle-blowers who report incidents of discrimination to state authorities if they sued their employer for retaliating against them.
The measure would have prohibited any punitive damages from being awarded in suits that involve government agencies. It also would have excluded individuals from liability, meaning that suits could only be brought against the employer.
The legislature had taken up the issue as one of six pro-business changes that the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and various other business groups had endorsed. The chamber said the measure would have simply aligned state law with federal statutes. The group said that would have given businesses more certainty about whether they could be sued, which would have led to the creation of more jobs in the state.
Chamber president Daniel Mehan said earlier this week that the state could risk being labeled "anti-employer" if Nixon opposed the legislation.
Nixon disputed that notion Friday, saying the bill would have given businesses less incentive to prevent discrimination, which he said would do nothing to create jobs.
"To thrive in a global economy and uphold these values that we share, Missouri must be a state that continues to move forward — not backward — when it comes to civil rights and equal opportunity," he said.
In a letter detailing his veto, Nixon said the legislation is "characterized by an overarching lack of accountability" for acts of discrimination.
As the measure moved through the legislature, Nixon had received several dozen letters about the legislation from businesses urging him to sign the measure and from civil rights groups pressing him to reject it. In one letter, Nimrod Chapel Jr., the president of the Jefferson City chapter of the NAACP, likened the legislation to a form of "Jim Crow era laws."
Lawmakers could override Nixon's veto if two-thirds of the House of Representatives and Senate vote to do so. In the Senate, where the measure was backed by a veto-proof majority, President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, indicated this past week that the measure could be taken up again before the end of the legislative session. He said it would help companies be better informed when making legal decisions.
"We believe that this bill helps create harmony across the board" for businesses, said Mayer.
But the measure cleared the House with just 93 supporters, 16 short of the majority necessary to override the governor. Republicans, who largely supported the bill, would need all of their caucus and four Democrats to support an override vote, something House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, said he doubted would happen.
"I anticipate it being very close if not more Democrats voting to uphold the veto," said Talboy.