Missouri House Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, contends that Republican Eric Governor Greitens and GOP leadership were aware well ahead of time that federal funds would be withheld if a bill in the legislature became law.
Senate Bill 43, which Greitens signed June 30, elevates the standard for proving employment discrimination. Under the measure, those who bring lawsuits must demonstrate that bias was the chief motive for a discriminatory act, where previously the bias needed to simply be a contributing factor.
Beatty’s office disclosed last Thursday letters dated July 14th and August 2nd that were sent to Missouri Commission on Human Rights Executive Director Alisa Warren from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The two pieces of correspondence stated that Missouri would be suspended from the Fair Housing Assistance Program if state law didn’t comply with protections offered under the federal Fair Housing Act.
McCann Beatty’s office has now released a letter to Missourinet dated February 6th, roughly three-and-a-half months before Senate Bill 43 passed the legislature, which informs Warren of the pending legislation’s failure to comply with federal law.
Staff members in Beatty’s office say they were given a copy of the February letter sometime during the legislative session by Democratic Representative Bruce Franks of St. Louis.
They said that at the time they weren’t surprised by the letter’s warning, given that a statement included with the bill from the Missouri Labor Department noted the state could lose funding from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or HUD.
The department said Missouri could lose the ability to continue contracting with the EEOC for $781,900 and/or HUD for $420,000. The three letters sent to state Human Rights Director Warren were from HUD.
McCann Beatty has concluded that Greitens and Republican leadership in the legislature didn’t think the issue of lost federal funding would be explored.
“I think they were expecting that this wouldn’t become public”, said McCann Beatty. “Hopefully, now that it is, they will have a change of heart. So far, what I’ve heard is ‘We simply didn’t know’. But clearly we have a trail that shows that they did.”
Governor Greitens’ office did not respond to a request for comment from Missourinet. McCann Beatty said the governor’s office was not talking to her. “I’ve had no conversation with the governor’s office at all. The last I heard his spokesperson basically said ‘no comment’.”
The July letter from HUD asserts that Missouri has until March 1st, 2018 to bring the state law in compliance with the Fair Housing Act in order for funding of the Fair Housing Assistance Program to continue.
McCann Beatty says lawmakers will be hard pressed to fix the law in a short period of time when they reassemble for the next legislative session, which begins on January 3rd.
“I am hopeful that the leadership on the Republican side sees this as important enough that we need to make this a priority, and deal with this as probably the first thing we deal with when we come back in session in January.”
The July letter from HUD further asserts that the federal agency will not refer any discrimination complaints to the state, and instructs the state Human Rights Commission to advise those filing fair housing complaints that they can do so with HUD.
State House Democrat Steven Roberts of St. Louis issued a statement Monday criticizing the law (Senate Bill 43). “It’s a poor sign when our legislature is more worried about the rights of oppressors rather than the oppressed”, said Roberts. “I have been adamantly opposed to SB 43 from its inception. At every town hall and community meeting I have attended, I have spoken out against this neo-Jim Crow law. Legislation like SB 43 is horrible for Missouri it shows ignorance and indifference.”
McCann Beatty said there was an element of cynicism in the actions of Republican lawmakers, given that, as she contends, they knew Senate Bill 43 would not conform to federal requirements.
The state Human Rights Commission has adjusted the possible loss of federal money due to the law from $420,000 to between $400,000 and $500,000.
In addition to requiring bias to be proven as the chief motive for a discriminatory act, HUD identified several other violations of the Fair Housing Act in the law.
The statute omits owners and landlords as parties that can be challenged for being discriminatory. It also imposes caps on actual and punitive damages, fails to protect victims of housing discrimination from retaliation and requires victims to file a complaint with the state before pursuing civil lawsuit.
Missouri business groups had championed Senate Bill 43 as bringing state statute in line federal discrimination laws. So far, no correspondence from a federal agency has surfaced regarding it violating anything other than to the Fair Housing Act.