Just seven weeks into this legislative session, tensions are running high between legislative Republicans — especially in the Missouri House — and the top Democrat in the state Capitol, Gov. Jay Nixon.
Two House Republicans have filed articles of impeachment against the governor, while House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, has set up a special committee to look into “continued regulatory overreach of both the state and federal governments.”
Nixon and Jones also are vigorously sparring over the state’s budget. The governor has accused the House of approving “fiscally irresponsible experiments’’ by trimming his proposed increases for public education and a new mental-health facility and backing tax cuts instead. Jones, in turn, contends that Nixon is spreading “a blatant falsehood” about the Fulton mental-health facility, which the House plans to pay for in a different manner. Jones asserts that the governor is engaging in “political gamesmanship.”
The governor and legislative leaders also have tangled over the large number of vacancies on some state boards and commissions. A Senate bill would require the governor to act within 90 days; Nixon blames part of the problem on the General Assembly’s actions to increase the number of people on such panels.
House Majority Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country and the next House speaker, said that relations between Nixon and House leaders are the poorest that he has seen.
George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, blames the tensions partly on politics and the coming elections — but he’s talking more about the stakes in 2016, not this fall.
Both sides are at fault, the professor added.
In recent months, says Connor, the governor — who used to avoid partisan political talk — “has become a Democrat all of a sudden.’’ The professor cited, for example, Nixon’s recent comments in favor of same-sex marriage.
“I suspect the audience that Nixon is playing to, is a national one,’’ Connor continued, alluding to widespread speculation that Nixon hopes to be considered for vice president or a Cabinet post should a Democrat win the 2016 election for the White House. Nixon already has endorsed Hillary Clinton. Because of term limits, his tenure ends in early 2017.
Meanwhile, Connor said, Jones is planning his own run for statewide office in 2016— most likely for attorney general — and “needs to develop a base statewide,’’ particularly among GOP donors, many of whom are staunch conservatives. Jones will leave office because of term limits in early 2015.
The upshot, said Connor: “Nixon has moved to the left and Jones has moved to the right.”
Their dueling political aims, he said, makes it more difficult to compromise on policy issues. For that reason, Connor predicts standoffs this session on competing proposals to cut taxes and curb tax credits.
Diehl said that Nixon deserves more of the blame. Once faulted for being too aloof from legislative business, the governor now is accused of being too ready to go on the attack — from afar. Diehl recalled a comment from a House Democrat, Chris Kelly, that Nixon "is more interested in throwing bombs from 10,000 feet than actually engaging in the legislative process."
Jones, by the way, offers a more pragmatic explanation. "On a personal level, we get along fine,'' he said of Nixon. The speaker added that Nixon's concern about his national profile may explain why "the governor is playing more politics and using more political theater than he ever has before."
Nixon's allies note that he has been a popular figure with Missouri voters for more than two decades, and assert that Republicans simply are obsessed with making him look bad.
Impeachment not political, sponsor says
The sponsor of one of the impeachment efforts, state Rep. Mike Moon, says the state constitution — not politics — has fueled his effort to oust Nixon from office.
At issue is Nixon’s slow action in calling several special elections to fill vacant seats in the state House and Senate. The governor recently set elections in August for three vacant state House posts, but he has yet to call an election for the empty Senate seat in Jefferson County.
Moon said that Nixon violated the state constitution’s mandate that a governor act “without delay’’ in the case of vacancies. A Cole County judge earlier this month tossed out a lawsuit making a similar complaint.
Moon said he's not dissuaded by the judge's decision. “I’m trying to leave politics out of this,” said Moon, a first-term Republican from Ash Grove, Mo. “I don’t know the governor personally and I have no reason to dislike him as an individual…. My duty (is) to call the governor’s hand on this.”
A separate impeachment effort has been filed by state Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, who is challenging the governor’s action a few months ago to allow same-sex couples in Missouri who have been legally married in other states to file joint tax returns.
Marshall said Nixon’s action violates the state constitution’s ban against same-sex marriages. Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster, a fellow Democrat, have said that the governor was simply complying with another constitutional mandate that requires the state’s tax system to comply with federal tax law.
Neither proposal has yet to be assigned to a House committee, although Moon is optimistic that will happen shortly.
Jones would make such committee assignments. So far, he has focused more on his special House committee. He has declined comment on the impeachment proposals beyond a statement about two weeks ago.
“The allegations against the governor regarding his repeated violations of the Missouri Constitution are ones I take very seriously and that certainly merit thorough discussion and investigation," Jones said in the statement. "At the same time the act of impeachment is something that should be utilized sparingly and only in response to an egregious abuse of the laws of our state. Moving forward, I expect the members of the House to take a very reasoned, deliberative approach to what will be a very serious discussion about the governor’s alleged misuse of his constitutional authority.”
The governor has called the impeachment proposals “a publicity stunt,’’ a sentiment shared by House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, who said that the effort is spawned by “the crazy wing of the Republican Party.”
Impeachment procedures are complicated
Even so, both sides are paying attention to the complicated political process for any effort to impeach a Missouri governor.
The state constitution lays out simple procedures for most statewide officials (although the lieutenant governor isn’t mentioned anywhere). Articles of impeachment must be filed in the Missouri House. If a majority votes in favor of the articles, the matter in most cases then shifts to the state Supreme Court, which is to “immediately elect managers to prosecute such impeachment.” Five of the seven judges must approve an impeachment for it to take effect.
That’s how the last impeachment of a statewide official was conducted in 1994, when then-Secretary of State Judith Moriarty was ousted for misdeeds related to a relative's filing for office.
But the procedure is different for a member of the state Supreme Court or the governor. In those cases, the state House sends any approved articles of impeachment to the state Senate, which is required to appoint a panel of seven judges from state circuit or appellate courts. Five of those judges would have to approve an impeachment for the governor to be removed.
However, Moon points to another provision of the state constitution that states once the House approves articles of impeachment, the official involved is “hereby suspended from exercising his office.’’
The upshot, said Moon, is that Nixon could be swiftly removed – at least temporarily – and replaced by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, until the judicial commission makes a decision.
Moon noted that the constitution calls for the Senate to appoint the judges “without delay.’’ If they take as long as Nixon has taken to set those special elections, he said, Nixon could be limbo for some time – and, in effect, out of office.
Connor, the political science professor at Missouri State, doubts that Jones or the state Senate will take things that far, even if Republican leaders continue to tangle with Nixon. The professor added with a chuckle, “But it does make for great political theater.”