Missouri Republicans consider options after Nixon vetoes business bills

Saturday, March 24, 2012 | 3:44 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Republican lawmakers in Missouri are trying to decide what they will do next on two pieces of business legislation recently vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

One 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. If an employer were to wrongfully discriminate, the legislation would cap the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff could recover at $300,000 or less, depending on the size of their former employer.

The other bill Nixon vetoed would include occupational diseases under the workers' compensation system, instead of allowing such claims to be decided in court. It would also prevent employees from suing each other for on-the-job injuries. Such claims would also be moved to the workers' compensation system.

Republicans have identified both bills as legislative priorities, saying they would make Missouri more business-friendly and spur job creation because entrepreneurs and companies looking to expand into the state would feel that they face less risk of being involved in costly, time-consuming litigation.

But Democrats, including Nixon, say the changes in both measures would be deeply unfair to workers and make it harder for them to seek legal redress. Further, Democrats contend that companies could end up viewing the limited settlements with workers who have been hurt or discriminated against as a simple cost of doing business and not an incentive to change their behavior.

House and Senate leaders now have a few different options for responding to the governor's rejections.

First, the chambers could try to override Nixon's vetoes. That would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate on each bill.

Republicans hold a veto-proof 26-8 majority in the Senate and all 26 GOP senators voted in favor of both bills that Nixon ultimately vetoed. This past week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said that his chamber was considering override votes, especially on the workers' compensation bill.

But bringing up the wrongful discrimination legislation could be problematic. That's because state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, has already filibustered such legislation twice and has vowed to do so if it comes back up in the Senate.

The Senate has a procedure to cut off debate and bring bills to a quick vote, but such a move hasn't been used in the chamber since 2007 and Senate leaders aren't talking about using it now.

House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, appears to have ruled out override votes in his chamber as a waste of time, as neither bill got a veto-proof majority in that chamber. The wrongful discrimination measure received 89 votes — just seven more than necessary to simply pass the first time.

Tilley said this week that he would rather try to reach compromises with Nixon. Lawmakers can't modify the specific bills that Nixon vetoed, but clones of each measure are still alive in the House and Senate. Those bills could be transformed into something that could get the governor's signature or that could garner enough votes to override a hypothetical veto.

But shaping those compromises could prove difficult. Nixon's veto messages on both bills took aim at their most significant provisions, and Nixon spokesman Sam Murphey reiterated Nixon's opposition earlier this week.

Republicans say the onus is on the governor to start negotiations on a potential compromise, even though Nixon appears to have achieved what he wanted by vetoing the bills.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, the sponsor of a pending workplace discrimination bill, has said repeatedly that the governor's office hasn't talked to him about ways to change his bill. Lager, who is running for lieutenant governor, said his only contact with the governor's office had been a voice mail notifying him of the governor's vetoes on the day they were announced.

"If we want to change the law in the current environment, we're going to have to have some communication from the governor about what he is willing to accept," Lager said. "Don't send me a veto letter saying what you won't do. Send somebody up here saying, 'Hey, here's what we can live with.'"

Murphey said lawmakers should already know what the governor's positions are.

"Gov. Nixon has consistently held a very clear position on the discrimination and workplace injury bills, both of which have been debated in previous legislative sessions," he said. "These positions were known and communicated to members of the General Assembly."


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