JEFFERSON CITY – Some Democrats say they want to reverse changes in a new Missouri whistleblower law that excludes state employees and public college and university workers from protections against being fired for speaking out against misconduct.
Supporters of the law say their goal was to allow safeguards already outlined in court rulings but to stop judges from further expanding existing protections for employees. The new law, signed by Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, took effect in late August. Private-sector employees still are covered.
"What we did is codify the common-law protections in the whistleblower portion of the law now," said Republican Rep. Joe Don McGaugh, an attorney from Carrollton who helped push the measure through the House. "We just didn't want to see the whistleblower protections grow and get larger."
But Democratic lawmakers now say they'll propose legislation during the next session, which starts in January, to allow state employees to sue if they speak out against violations of the law or other misconduct and then are fired.
"We still want state workers to be able to blow the whistle when there is fraud and abuse that has happened or is going to happen and they're aware of it," said Creve Coeur Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp, who said she's working with the Democratic auditor and House Democratic leader to draft legislation. "They have no protections under this law."
It's unclear if their efforts will be successful in the Republican-led Legislature, where members of the minority party seldom are able to send bills to the governor. But McGaugh said he's open to suggestions for improvements to the whistleblower law and would "take a hard look" at any proposal to expand protections. Republican sponsor Sen. Gary Romine did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment.
Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway also is promoting an anonymous tip hotline that state workers can call to report waste, fraud and mismanagement in the public sector.
Lawmakers in Missouri's Republican-led Legislature tried to pass changes to whistleblower and discrimination laws for years, but their efforts were blocked by former Gov. Jay Nixon. In a 2012 letter explaining his veto of a measure similar to the one now in effect, the Democrat said whistleblowers "provide an important service to all Missourians, and laws should not be written to discourage individuals from exposing misconduct."
The measures gained traction when Greitens took office this year. He backs what supporters call tort reform, which generally means limiting the conditions under which people can file liability lawsuits. Republicans and top business groups pushed for tort reform because they said Missouri businesses are sued too often.
The whistleblower changes were part of a larger bill that raised the standard for proving workplace, housing and public accommodation discrimination in court based on race, gender or other protected class. Debate on whistleblower protections largely took a backseat to legislative fights over the discrimination provisions, which in part prompted the Missouri NAACP to issue a travel advisory warning visitors about racial issues in the state.
The new law puts into place whistleblower protections outlined in court cases for private-sector employees who report laws being broken, speak out against "serious misconduct" that violates state laws and policies, or who are asked to break the law but refuse. Those ex-employees must prove in court that whistleblowing was the reason they were fired, not a contributing factor. They can be awarded damages for back pay and medical expenses but not punitive damages.
Managers and other executive employees whose job it is to report misconduct or provide their professional opinions also can't sue if they're fired for whistleblowing.