General Assembly ends session: Now, what will Nixon do?

May 13, 2016

With Missouri legislators heading home, the focus in Jefferson City now shifts to Gov. Jay Nixon – who will decide what to sign and what to veto among close to 140 bills now sitting on his desk.

And despite what the governor called “stark differences’’ of opinion, Nixon sounded more conciliatory in his post-session address than he has in recent years. The governor’s implied message Friday was that, from his perspective, this 4 and ½-month session could have been worse.

  A sportsman who owns guns, Nixon also expressed some general unease about the session’s final days, where he saw “this hustle for a significant change in our gun laws."  

But overall, Nixon said that as he reflects on the legislators’ intent, “as Missourians, there is more that unites us than divides us. We all share a deep and abiding love of this state, and a commitment to leaving it better than we found it.”

Gov. Jay Nixon speaks to reporters following the end of the legislative session in Jefferson City on Friday.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In particular, the governor singled out the General Assembly’s action – or rather, lack of it – that killed a proposed ballot measure, called Senate Joint Resolution 39, that sought to allow individuals and businesses to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples.

The proposal passed the Senate, but died in a House committee.

“This was an important moment for Missouri, a decisive step away from the prejudices of the past, and toward a more diverse, tolerant and inclusive future,” Nixon said.

In a break from the criticism he has leveled at some previous legislative leaders, Nixon offered some measured praise for the current crop – notably, the two GOP legislative leaders, Speaker Todd Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard.

Missouri Speaker of the House Todd Richardson listens to representatives speak on the last day of the legislative session.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Nixon praised both for being upfront and open. The two leaders, in turn, avoided any jabs at the governor in their post-session remarks – something that their predecessors often engaged in.

Such conciliatory efforts aside, now that the lawmakers are out of town, the governor’s future plans may not mesh with theirs.

Photo ID likely on the November ballot

Nixon made clear that he opposes the Republicans’ drive to win voter approval of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to require a government-issued photo ID before would-be voters can cast a ballot.

The General Assembly approved the ballot proposal this week, and both Richard and Richardson cited that action as among their top accomplishments.

Richardson said a photo ID requirement would “bring some integrity to our election process."

Senator Pro Tem Ron Richard answers questions from reporters.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Nixon took a different view. “It’s a concept on which I disagree,’’ he said, “We want to make voting something that is easy and open to do.”

Although the GOP doesn’t need his approval to place the proposal on the ballot, Nixon decides on which ballot it will appear. The governor indicated that he likely will place the photo ID proposal on the November ballot, since that’s when the most people will be at the polls.

The governor also appears to be leaning toward vetoing the photo ID implementation bill that now sits on his desk. Although it’s weaker – and more palatable to some Democrats -- than a version he vetoed several years ago, Nixon said he’s not prepared to look at the bill and ask himself, “ ‘How can I make this work?’ “

Interim curators will be named

Nixon also plans to make several recess appointments to the Board of Curators to govern the state’s public university system, largely in response to the decision of Richard and other Senate leaders not to consider any curator nominees during the legislative session.

The nine-member board now has three vacancies. “I think we need to have a full board to make the important decisions needed to move the university forward,’’ Nixon said.

Nixon also plans to fill the student spot among the curators, saying he was surprised that the Senate wouldn’t even consider filling that slot.

The governor acknowledged that his recess choices may be ousted when a new governor is sworn in next January and when a new legislative session begins.

But even the fill-in curators serve only a few months, the governor said, they can help choose “the permanent leaders to move the university forward.”

On ethics, Nixon and GOP leaders seek more action

Amid pressure from all sides, the General Assembly did approve measures that require lawmakers to wait six months before becoming lobbyists, and bar legislators from being paid political consultants while in office.

Nixon and Richardson appear to agree that more needs to be done. Richardson said a stronger ban on lobbyists gifts will be among his top priorities next session. But Senate leader Richard acknowledged the difficulty in getting some lawmakers on board. “You can only do what we can get 18 votes on,” Richard said. The ethics changes that did get passed are “not the end of it,” the Senate leader added. “I think it’s the beginning.”

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, listens as fellow senators thank each other for their work.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Said state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton: “For taxpayers to give us $103 a day in per diem to come here and for legislators to let lobbyists wine and dine them rather than using the per diem for its intended purpose – I think it’s completely indefensible.”

A starker partisan division remains when it comes to campaign-donation limits. Most Republican legislators oppose the idea, saying that transparency is the best way to monitor campaign contributions.

Nixon and the Democrats say Missouri’s lack of limits is the chief obstruction to true ethics reform. Missouri politicians’ image “is never going to be what it needs to be,” the governor said, when donors are doling out $1 million checks.

Labor issues

Richardson and Richard vowed to try again next year to win legislative approval of a measure – dubbed “paycheck protection’’ by backers and “paycheck deception’’ by critics -- that would require some unionized public employees, including teachers, to annually give their written permission before the union could have dues deducted from their paychecks.

Although both chambers passed the measure, the Senate narrowly failed early Friday to override the governor’s veto. Nixon praised the result, saying the measure was unfair to workers.

GOP leaders acknowledged that the result of this year's governor's race will loom large in whether to bring the issue up again. If Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster wins, GOP lawmakers would have to try for an override again -- which takes 109 votes in the House. If a Republican wins, the threshold to implementation substantially drops.

"Depending on how the gubernatorial election goes, we'll either be looking for 82 votes or we'll be looking for 109 again," Richardson said. "Obviously it's my hope that we're looking for 82. But after that election's over, we'll assess what kind of path." 

Abortion and Planned Parenthood

Richardson said the House’s GOP majority remains committed to doing what it can to curb abortions. Democratic leaders reaffirmed their opposition.

A proposed “personhood’’ bill that would have barred all abortions and some forms of birth control died during the session.

But the General Assembly did succeed, at least for now, in barring Planned Parenthood from receiving roughly $350,000 in federal Medicaid money allocated to Missouri for women’s health services. Legislators stripped out the $8 million in federal money that the state receives for such services, and replaced it with $8 million in state money so that Planned Parenthood could be carved out.

Nixon said his staff is continuing to look at the legal issues. He added that his chief concern was in making sure that women’s health services were not reduced for Medicaid recipients.

Missouri budget praised

“For the eighth consecutive year, we will balance the budget without raising taxes,” Nixon said. “For the eighth consecutive year, government will get smaller and more efficient than it was before. “

However, the governor said he was concerned about what appeared to $80 million in tax breaks that legislators approved after the budget had been finalized. Nixon has the power to block those tax cuts, but the General Assembly could override some or all of his line-item vetoes.

This legislative session was the last during Nixon’s eight-year tenure. And although his general comments Friday were civil, he acknowledged something else.

When he leaves office, Nixon said, dealing with legislators “is not the part of the job I’ll miss.”

Mallory Daily contributed to this report.