With all of the headlines surrounding the recent disclosure of the letter detailing how the passage of SB 43 could endanger some HUD funding for the state, SEMO Times Publisher Scott Faughn sat down with the bill’s sponsor, Senator Gary Romine, R-Ste. Genevieve, for his first interview since the letter came to light at Poppy’s in Crystal City to separate the facts from the speculation.
Scott Faughn (SF) – So, let’s start from the beginning. When you sat down to craft this piece of legislation, what was your intent?
Senator Gary Romine (GR) – To standardize the threshold for discrimination. What was the threshold? What was the factor that should be determining whether or not it met the level of discrimination. And so it currently, it was a Contributing Factor – which meant that all you had to be was a member of a protected class to qualify to file a discrimination [claim.] Motivating Factor means that the situation had to be motivated because of your protected class.
SF – So Republicans run on a few different things almost every cycle. One of them is tort reform and making it harder to file lawsuits on businesses in the hope that it improves the business climate. Was that part of this?
GR – No, to me the purpose for pushing the bill forward was to have a balanced approach to dealing with employment decisions and issues and a lot…
SF – … Do you think it was balanced toward the employee before this?
GR – Yes.
SF – So, making a more favorable business climate was at least part of the goal, right?
GR – Yes.
SF- I’ve had the question asked to me on KMOX a couple times if Republicans asked you to file this, but it’s my understanding that in the course of business, you’ve had experience dealing with this portion of law, from the business owner’s side. Is that why you were the senator that filed the bill?
GR – That’ s it actually being a business owner and being involved with business in over 30 years, yes I’ve experienced discrimination lawsuits. And so I’m familiar with the human commission on human rights and how the EEOC operates. To me, it was a concern. It was detrimental to business. And being a part of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and local chambers of commerce, one of the top issues that most businesses talked about was the fact of having a hard time terminating employees for qualified reasons because of the concern of retribution through employment discrimination lawsuits.
SF – Owning businesses, you’ve had to fire employees before, right? I would assume you have had to terminate employees of all races, sexes, and sexual orientation. Would you say though, as a person in business that there are legitimate circumstances where employees been discriminated against. Those situations do exist in the workplace, correct?
GR – They do and I do not support discrimination of any type, discrimination is wrong. No matter what the person’s status is. Discrimination is wrong. But, the discrimination has to be valid.
SF – Is it true that, though, that erroneous claims are sometimes the greatest enemy of the legitimate claims and can end up putting up bigger roadblocks to actually getting to the real instances of discrimination.
GR – I think it’s a lot like the nursery rhyme Crying Wolf. I mean, you ‘cry wolf’ too many times, where you use so frivolously a lawsuit like this then the true discrimination issues get lost in the weeds because of that.
SF – I was on the radio and I heard somebody raise the claim that because of this bill, there was going to be a loss of all the federal housing money withheld from Missouri. That seems like a little bit of a pig in a poke. What’s really happening between the Federal Government and the state government?
GR – Well, the numbers have already dropped from $1.2 million, which was what the original fiscal note when we took the bill through the hearing process in the Senate is now down to about $500,000. And again, the purpose of the bill was to reestablish state statue: the law in Missouri and to hopefully raise a level of concern on the federal level because the standard for housing is lower than the standard for employment even on the federal level. Our bill wanted to maintain a standard that was consistent with – discrimination is discrimination. So the standard should be the same, whether it’s employment or housing. And so the question right now is, because of a rule that was made by HUD and then codified by Supreme Court- a Supreme Court decision that was – I think a 5-4 vote – the rule was upheld. And that rule allowed for housing to be a lower standard for discrimination than employment. But we contended, that even though that was brought to light, our contention was that if we’re going to have a solid bill, let’s stay consistent with what we consider as discrimination.
SF – So there was a letter sent by the federal government in the late spring, before the session was over, before this bill was passed by the house, was that shown to you by anybody in the governor’s office?
GR – I was not made aware of that letter, no.
SF – Do you think that, just in matter of transparency and fairness, the Senate should have – and the House should have been made aware of the concerns of the federal government?
GR – I think there was – maybe an understanding that because we knew from the fiscal note that there was going to be some question with housing, that there was a difference in the standard. But that conversation had already been had. I don’t know the motivation or the thought process behind the…
SF – … When the Senate passed the bill, this letter had not been sent, obviously…
GR – …No, it had not….
SF – But don’t – what would be the motivation to keep that from the legislature?
GR – I – I cannot answer that.
SF – The governor has called you corrupt. He has called you a career politician. He has called you a third-grader. Do you think part of his dislike for the legislature made him keep that information from the legislature?
GR – You know, I – I won’t speculate on what the Governor’s Office – We’ve had our differences, but I cannot and will not speculate on why they chose not to share that letter.
SF – Let’s talk about the legislative process of it. So you passed the bill out the Senate relatively early in session. And this was obviously going to be a controversial bill, at least amongst some in the Senate, but you got out early in session. The house held it for several weeks, right up almost to the end of session. There was the feeling in the capitol amongst some – many of us folks in the popcorn gallery, if the house amended this bill, it would kill it. Is that how you felt?
GR – I don’t believe that was the speculation. I believe the concern was that we had a very solid bill that had been well vetted. I feel like we were answered. I mean, one of the issues that was brought up was why weren’t state employees – why were they exempt from this bill. I mean, state employees are already a codified whistleblower, under a different statute. That did not need to be dealt with in the bill. The housing issue? It was a may have an effect, but there was no solid proof that it was going to have a negative…
SF – … Yeah, yeah, but if the house would have amended this bill, though, would you have had any problem taking it with all good faith to your fellow senators again to work on, to either take the revisions or to go to conference – I mean that’s how the legislative process works, if they would have amended the bill, that should have – that’s just part of the process, right?
GR – Right.
SF – Would you have had any problem going back to the Senate and just making the case for your bill again?
GR – If that is what would have happened, I would have had no problem taking the bill back to my colleagues.
SF – Do you think sometimes – and I think we saw this in the special sessions, people get so afraid of letting the process work. I mean, that’s – it’s funny the way our state has settled our differences for nearly two hundred years. What’s wrong with just letting the process unfold? Do you think maybe there was some influences outside the building that pressured the House not to let the process work?
GR – I really – in all sincerity, cannot speculate on those motivations or what drove the House to wait so late on the bill. I do know that we had a very good bill that left the Senate and went to the House. I was very proud of the product that we finished with. We spent many a-hours. It was past 3:00 in the morning when we finished the negotiations with the other side of the aisle and with Mr. [Nimrod] Chapel from the NAACP.
SF – Who was the Senator that you really worked with on this bill? At three in the morning, I mean – I think a lot of folks watching this bill that will remember if you recall there was one publication in the state that still had a reporter in the capitol that night. If you don’t mind to share, who were you negotiating with at the end?
GR – In all – if it came down to just one or two, it was Senator Sifton and Senator Walsh, but I also had Senator Nasheed in the room, Senator Curls was in the room at times.
SF – And you’ve never been a senator to have problems negotiating in the Senate. I mean, you have a reputation for getting things done…
GR – … I’m very honored and proud to have the fact that I think my colleagues know that if there’s an issue, we can sit down and work it out. I want- I want to have that conversation. I’m not afraid to have a conversation about the issues.
SF – Did the Democrats that you were working with raise the issue of the housing funding at the time?
GR – There was a – yes, yes, they did.
SF – So there was – even though the governor didn’t share the letter, that was discussed in the Senate and there were senators who knew that this was a possibility?
GR – There was, but it was a minimal part of the conversation. I mean, once we addressed the issue, as far as I was concerned, the standards for- was the Motivating Factor for whether it was employment or housing, but housing had very little conversation at the time in the Senate.
SF – Let’s talk worse case scenario, let’s say that everything that has been raised by the federal government today happens, the worst thing for Missouri would be that there was half a million dollars that funds some state employees, am I right to say that the federal government would have to pay those employees or hire new employees to enforce some provisions. Is that- is that the worst case scenario as you see it, today?
GR – The worst thing that can happen is that if there is any legitimate claims for housing, it would have to go through the federal courts instead of through the state’s courts. There’s still a venue or an avenue for folks to be concerned about discrimination on housing through the federal courts.
SF – And if the worst case – the worst that happens, as you know it today, is that?
GR – Yes.
SF – So – let me ask you another question. This was billed by some as simply replicating the federal standard, it’s not completely the federal standard right?. It’s more restrictive than the federal standard. Is that correct?
GR – No, it’s balanced with the federal standard, when it comes to employment issues. It is slightly tougher when it comes to housing issues. And again the impetus is to make sure that we have a standard that is consistent whether it is housing or employment.
SF – In regards to the confusion on the federal standard. When you’re carrying a piece of legislation, that is as substantial as this, is it hard sometimes to keep people that are trying to help you from maybe overstating things? Like, if it’s the same as the federal and that there’s nothing different. To me, it looks like herding cats sometimes. Some of your biggest supporters can maybe be your biggest problem.
GR – I can see what you’re saying there, but everyone has an interest in wanting to play a part in getting a major piece of legislation passed, and, at times, statements can be made that may not be fully be, fully informed statements. So that’s true.
SF – This is a piece of legislation that you’ve worked with the governor’s office on?
GR – We did get all the stakeholders involved. There was a portion in time when we had the governor involved in this.
SF – I think it’s an interesting thing, some people think if you’ve ever said anything critical about someone in politics that you’re mortal enemies. It’s interesting to note that this is one of the biggest things that the legislature did and they were working to help to help you, right?
GR – True.
SF – And in the House, I think they were even more aggressive than in the Senate to help get it across the finish line. If you could change anything about this bill, as the session unfolded, would you have amended anything?
GR – We have a good bill. I honestly don’t see anything that needs to be worked on this bill, at this point.
SF – Do you believe that this issue of a half a million dollars, that funds these administrators, do you think that issue ultimately will be resolved in a way that doesn’t require them to become federal employees?
GR – I think that what we’re looking at right now is that since we do have a Republican body on the federal level and on the state level, that they’re working on that rule at the federal level that’s creating that angst about the $500,000. There are conversations going on as we speak on how to address that issue going forward. I would love to see HUD modify the rule. That can be done to fix the issue for Missouri. I know there are conversations about making that happen.
SF – Sometimes it surprises me that when I hear people that look like they’re in shock when legislators do things that are in line with their campaign promises. You ran as a businessman. People know you as a successful businessman. You ran as pro-business. Are you surprised that others are surprised that you cast votes in the state Senate and presented pro-business pieces of legislation?
GR – There shouldn’t be any surprise at all. I mean any issue that is having an adverse effect on our economy as a state, but particularly on small businesses in Missouri, it only makes sense that lives in every day, tackles that particular issue.
SF – Let’s talk about a couple other issues, if you don’t mind?
GR – Sure.
SF – The interim transportation committee is meeting – the special committee on transportation and is rehashing some interesting topics. But isn’t the real adult conversation center on if there are enough statesman that are willing to put more money into roads? Because I think that everyone sees that there’s a problem, but do think that there is a will in the Senate to push a piece across the finish line to actually put more money into fixing the problem?
GR – I know that there are several of us that have a strong interest to get that accomplished. We’ve voiced our concerns and opinions over the last two to three years. I’ve enjoyed working with Senator Libla on trying to find a path to get forward on – on getting more funds into the state transportation. I plan on attending one of the last meetings just to see how those special meetings are going on the transportation issues. So I’m prepared to have that debate on the Senate floor…
SF – … Is it realistic to say that you can meet Missouri’s transportation needs without new money?
GR – Absolutely not.
SF – I think you can maybe tell the mark of someone not serious about this, if they think you can do the ol Republican three-step of waste, fraud, and abuse to fixing the problem, there’s no way. It’s Candyland legislating, right?
GR – I have spent a lot of time with MoDOT and seen how hard they worked, to work within the budget that they have, but bottom line is that they’re working with 20-year-old dollars. It’s never been indexed to reach this standard of living today. So we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that we cannot put money the system and fix the problems we are facing.
SF – I ain’t ever been a fan of the gub’ment, but I think MoDOT has earned the respect of the state. I think that it’s one department that folks have some confidence in – would you be opposed to letting the public decide how they want to spend their tax dollars?
GR – I wouldn’t be opposed to that at all. I would find any way I can to get them the proper message. Again, the frustrating thing is that – educating the electorate so that they understand the value of what they’re voting on and raising taxes is a hard vote for them to make.
SF – We had Senator [Mike] Kehoe on the show, on This Week in Missouri Politics last week, he talked about transportation funding. He also brought up another issue he sees coming up next session and that’s some people wanting to eliminate economic development programs in rural Missouri, programs like LIHTC. There’s been a proposal floated to only let the federal credits, which would obviously be a huge influx of money into urban Missouri at the expense of rural Missouri. You represent a rural district. Would you ever let rural Missouri get to the woodshed like that if…
GR – No. Again, we’ve got to have a balanced approach to dealing with any issue, particularly when it comes to funding, whether it’s transportation – I mean, there’s always a concern that the rural areas do not get their fair share of transportation funding, but I think again, MoDOT has worked very hard to clear that up and what I see in my district right now, I’m very proud of the maintenance and the repairs that have taken place. But the same way with LIHTC or the Low Income Tax Credit Programs we have, to make sure that rural Missouri has equal access to those funds.
SF – Do you think when you work on a bill, like this Senate bill that you passed on discrimination working with a governor that now, when it comes to a bill like this, do you think that it helps that you as a senator from rural Missouri, to sit down and explain to an inner city Governor the adverse affects gutting economic development programs in rural Missouri would have and are those conversations be a place you can build from?
GR – I can speak from experience that the governor has met with myself on a couple different occasions now, I think through some of the – SB 43 and some other things we’ve worked on, I’ve garnered some respect that – we’ve had some good conversations. I think we’re going to see a better approach to some issues, such as prevailing wage because of those conversations and I hope we have a chance to express our concerns on LIHTC or any of these other issues that affect rural Missouri more than urban. There’s a lot of issues in Jeff City that are more about urban versus rural than it is about Republican versus Democrat.
SF – Boy, that has certainly been the case last few sessions. Back to a couple more things, how is President Trump doing in your district? If you watch CNN, he’s the most unpopular person since, I don’t know Pol Pot, but in your district, how is the president doing?
GR – The president is doing a balanced approach, right now. I’m not hearing negatives, but I’m not hearing a lot of cheers either, it’s been quiet and I take that as they’re patiently watching him accomplish the job that he’s trying to do right now.
SF – Let’s talk politics. You’ve opened up a leadership committee. Are you looking at a run for Pro Tem? Have you decided what – or if you’ll run for anything?
GR – I am very much interested in running for Pro Tem. I feel like my tenure, albeit short, five years as a Senator. I did serve three years as a staffer in the Senate, I understand the Senate. I have a passion for the Senate. I worked hard on making sure that I have relationships with both sides of the aisle. I think as a Pro Tem with the experience that I’ve had, will allow us to not find ourselves into whether it’s a filibuster or a previous-question (PQ.) We have to make sure that have good communications and balanced debate on all the issues going forward.
SF – When I asked Senator (Dave) Schatz, he announced on our podcast that he was going to run for Pro Tem about the PQ. He really didn’t rule out many scenarios by which he would seek to use the PQ as a way to move the Senate toward voting. How do you feel about the use of the PQ?
GR – You know, I feel like it’s very important that if I as an individual Senator that is dealing with a key piece of legislation that is taking us many hours, late at night, I think leadership has to be involved directly in those final negotiations to try to find any measure possible to get that done, to bring it to a vote, if it’s not there, you know, the filibuster is a tool, the PQ is a tool, but is the tool of last resort.
SF – Is there an issue that you see coming in the next session that you think will be important?
GR – Obviously, I think I’m looking at education. I think we have to continue to spend to increase course access in rural Missouri to make sure that kids that need to take Calculus 2 can do that and if it means internet, or virtual education, and course access, we want to find ways to make that a better alternative. We have to get internet into our school districts, and I think rural broadband is really critical…
SF – … Can you get that done? Is there anything that would have a bigger impact on Missourians, from the cradle to the grave, than rural broadband?
GR – In my mind, right now, no. Based upon, if we wanted an educated workforce and as much of our education comes down the pipeline…
SF – … Do you have a state Senate that includes enough statesmen to get that done?
GR – I believe that if you have the right proposal out there and we get a change to properly debate it, yes.
SF – Do you have a House of Representatives that you trust can handle a real – I mean this is a real adult public policy to actually help people. It ain’t guns and abortion, can they can do it?
GR – If we show them our leadership and abilities to put a good product out there from the Senate debate? This – the House- I mean, if the House puts a good product out there, it makes it easier for the Senate to debate and put it out there…
SF – … Is this a Governor that can engage the legislature in an adult manner to this done?
GR – I think the Governor has an interest in getting broadband out…
SF – … Is he willing to go work, like he worked for an abortion bill? Is he committed to – I mean, this would be to any reasonable observer a truly great accomplishment for the State of Missouri.
GR – It’s a great issue that needs to get done and I would only think that…
SF – … Who is against it?
GR – I think the pocketbooks. I mean, it’s going to cost money to get done so where do the funds come from to get it done? That’s – that’s the biggest answer that is going to be made.
SF – That’s the funny thing we all talk about urban schools and the test scores and not making the grade. The rural schools may meet their budget, but they don’t offer Calculus 2, where students can take those courses in an urban school. Isn’t that the technology that’s needed – you talk about level playing fields, there’s some awfully poor parts of Ripley County, too, where they don’t offer Calculus 2. And maybe there is at a school that is having problems in North City, there’s a lot of poverty in this state. It comes in a lot of different colors and zip codes. Is there anything you can do to level those playing fields more than provide rural broadband?
GR – No. I think that’s the most important thing we can do to really raise the level of economic development for the state because an educated workforce is a workforce that is going to bring development to our state.
SF – Senator, thank you for your time.
GR – Scott, I appreciate you coming down.
SF – Any excuse to come to Crystal City, Ill take.