The Missouri Senate has approved what is either a tweak to a bill passed last year or a small change with a huge impact, depending on who you talk to.
The upper chamber unanimously (30-0) passed a proposal from Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, to restore whistleblower protections for government employees.
A law passed by the Republican-dominated legislature last year stiffened requirements for proving workplace discrimination. The statute was billed as a means to stimulate business activity and job creation by doing away with frivolous lawsuits.
In its attempt to achieve that goal, the measure stripped away protections for state and local government employees who report wrongdoing in the workplace.
According to Schupp, the law’s major shortcoming for government employees is that it failed to provide them a remedy for discrimination.
Her proposal passed by the Senate on Thursday ensures that all public employees can disclose a violation of law, mismanagement, or a waste of funds within a state agency without fear of being disciplined.
The bill specifies that workers can share that information with prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement, news media, and the public. It also expands the scope of information that can be disclosed and guarantees employees’ ability to testify about those disclosures before a court as well as administrative and legislative bodies.
Further, the measure stretches the deadline for workers to report disciplinary action against them from 30 days to a full year and expands their window to bring lawsuits from 90 days to a year.
Finally, the bill allows employees to speak freely after making monetary settlements with the state by ensuring they don’t have to sign confidentiality agreements.
Republican Senate Floor Leader Mike Kehoe of Jefferson City calls the measure a tweak to the law passed last year.
“I wouldn’t call it a massive change,” says Kehoe. “But it gives them a little more protection if they see something wrong – waste, fraud and abuse and other issues – that they don’t have to be worried about being able to report those issues.”
Sen. Schupp says restoring whistleblower protections in the law is more than making a tweak to legislation.
“We’re talking about it differently,” says Schupp. “I would never say it was a tweak. It’s a small piece of that overall bill, but a small piece with huge impact.”
Schupp says Republicans likely didn’t foresee errors in the legislation because it was so large and far-reaching.
“It took a real in-depth understanding of every piece of it,” Schupp says. “And until that went through in its final form, I don’t think that they were certainly aware that this problem was created.”
The bill’s passage by a 30-0 margin comes after sharp division about the overall measure, known as Senate Bill 43 when it was debated and after it became law.
The bill inserted the “motivating factor” standard into the law, meaning it requires employees to prove that discrimination was the specific reason for them being disciplined or fired at work. Before the change, discrimination only had to be a “contributing factor” to prove wrongdoing by an employer.
Schupp was a vocal opponent of the discrimination bill as were almost all Democrats.
Further complications arose for Republicans when it became known that the bill’s sponsor, GOP Senator Gary Romine of Farmington, owned a business that had numerous discrimination lawsuits pending against it.
The law became a central plank of a “travel advisory” issued by the Missouri chapter of the NAACP, which warned people to exercise extreme caution after a series questionable, race-based incidents occurred in the state.
Last October, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development informed the state that the law was out of compliance with federal standards in the Fair Housing Act and that Missouri would be suspended from participating in the Fair Housing Assistance Program.
In December, state Auditor Nicole Galloway threw her support behind Schupp’s bill as well as a companion measure in the House sponsored by Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty of Kansas City.
Galloway, a Democrat, said at the time, “Non-disclosure agreements as a part of state legal settlements, coupled with compromised protections for whistleblowers, allow improper government activity to be shrouded in secrecy.”
Schupp’s proposal appears to be the vehicle through which the legislation will move forward in the House as McCann Beatty’s bill has not seen any action.