Feds warned Missouri beforehand of ‘serious concerns’ with anti-discrimination law change

Missouri House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty holds a press conference after the opening of the 99th General Assembly in Jefferson City on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. Photo by David Carson,

JEFFERSON CITY • Federal officials warned a Missouri official in February that a bill pending in the Legislature would not align with the federal law, a Missouri House Democrat said Wednesday.

Joseph A. Pelletier, director of the Fair Housing Assistance Program, said the legislation raised "extremely serious concerns" in a letter to Alisa Warren, executive director of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights — concerns that would jeopardize the state’s participation in the federal Fair Housing Assistance Program.

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, released the letter on Wednesday. She said it makes clear Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration knew that federal funding was at risk, yet it opted not to address problem provisions in the bill.

Greitens signed the controversial Senate Bill 43 over the summer.

HUD has since threatened to pull an estimated $500,000 in funds connected to the Fair Housing Assistance Program if the Legislature does not repeal problem parts of the law by March 1, 2018.

In addition to February letter, Beatty said a fiscal note at the bottom of the bill said Senate Bill 43 may conflict with federal law. The Post-Dispatch also reported on HUD’s concerns in April, before lawmakers sent the bill to the governor.

"Instead of fixing the problem when they had the chance, Governor Greitens and Republican legislative leaders chose to ignore it," Beatty said in a statement. "This is nothing short of legislative malpractice, and victims of illegal housing discrimination in Missouri will suffer as a result."

HUD took issue with language saying plaintiffs must prove a landlord or bank intentionally denied them housing based solely on race, sex or other protected characteristics, a provision capping damages in discrimination suits and language that removed some protections against retaliation — among other things.

Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, the Senate sponsor of the bill, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Nor could Lauren Heiger, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

Parker Briden, the governor’s spokesman, said he didn’t know whether Greitens knew about the February letter, and referred questions to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

The department, in a statement, did not answer whether it shared HUD’s concerns with the governor’s office. Instead the Department of Labor said it was now working to "clear up any apprehension [HUD] may have regarding changes to the Missouri Human Rights Act contained in Senate Bill 43. These conversations are ongoing."

In April, Romine dismissed concerns the federal government could cut off funding.

“They’ve said they might take away funding, but there’s no foundation to that,” he said. “Other states have similar standards and haven’t lost their [Housing and Urban Development] funding.”

But Rep. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, predicted the federal government’s eventual assessment in April.

“They keep saying this matches the federal standard, but we know it doesn’t,” he said.

Beatty said Democrats would promote legislation repealing problem provisions when the Legislature convenes in January.

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