UPDATE: Mo. House passes whistleblower, work comp bills

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 6:44 p.m. CDT; updated 9:31 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 26, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House passed two pieces of business legislation Thursday aimed at overcoming vetoes by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon earlier this year.

Both measures now go to the Senate, which approved similar measures earlier in the legislative session.

The Republican-controlled House voted 86-66 for a bill that could reduce protections for employees who report wrongdoing in the workplace. The legislation limits "whistleblower" status to employees who report or refuse to carry out illegal acts. It also limits who can receive whistleblower reports and caps the amount of punitive damages a whistleblower can recover if an employer retaliates.

The proposal is a scaled-down version of a bill Nixon vetoed in mid-March that also included provisions related to workplace discrimination lawsuits.

Missouri does not have an official whistleblower law. Instead, the state's courts have decided who can sue and how much they can recover based on previous cases.

The sponsor of Thursday's measure, Rep. Kevin Elmer, said it would provide clarity for businesses by formally putting the rules into state law. Elmer's bill would supersede courts' earlier decisions.

"We're trying to balance the rights of individuals and the right to earn a living," Elmer, R-Nixa, said.

A change offered by Rep. Sylvester Taylor would apply the law to all private businesses. The original bill exempted companies with fewer than six employees.

"I think if you have any employees, you have a duty and a right to protect them," said Taylor, D-St. Louis County. "I think they should be protected whether you have one or if you have 50."

But Democrats, including Taylor, spoke at length against the measure, complaining that it still didn't offer workers enough cover to report serious problems. They also took issue with the bill's exemptions for state and local government entities — including the state's public colleges and universities.

Several Republicans joined the Democrats in voting against the bill.

The House also backed legislation Thursday that would bar employees from suing co-workers for on-the-job injuries.

Lawmakers approved similar provisions earlier this year as part of a larger bill on modifying the workers' compensation system, but Nixon also vetoed that measure.

In earlier debate, some Democrats spoke against the measure saying it would bar employees from suing co-workers even for intentionally caused injuries. But Thursday, other Democrats indicated they were willing to compromise and voted in favor of it.

Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, the sponsor of the new measure, says it is an additional vehicle that lawmakers could use to make other changes such as overhauling the state's Second Injury Fund, which pays benefits to people with disabilities who sustain additional injuries on the job.

Jones said lawmakers don't know whether Nixon will veto this bill as well. The floor leader criticized the governor, saying Nixon hasn't told the legislature what provisions he wants to see in a final version.

"The chief executive of the state is supposed to be the chief leader of the state and have the chief agenda of the state," he said. "We haven't seen that in the four years that we've dealt with him."

A spokesman for the governor said Nixon is negotiating with lawmakers about a workers' compensation measure, but he declined to comment further.

Jones' measure cleared the House on a 99-47 vote Thursday and now moves to the Senate, which is also considering measures that restructure the Second Injury Fund.

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