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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: House speaker perturbed with Nixon's appointment of former colleague

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2013 - House Speaker Tim Jones has a message for any of his colleagues thinking of accepting a plum appointment from Gov. Jay Nixon. Call him. Definitely.

“I’m asking members if they receive a call from Jay Nixon to make a second call to me,” Jones said on Wednesday.

Jones isn’t dispensing that advice for kicks. The Eureka Republican was notably perturbed over the Democratic governor’s decision to appoint state Rep. Don Ruzicka, R-Mt. Vernon, to the state's Board of Probation and Parole. Because of that move, Republicans now have 109 members in the Missouri House – the exact number needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Asked if he was worried that Nixon would appoint another House Republican to a lucrative post to lower the GOP majority below the 109-member threshold, Jones said: "Absolutely. Because Jay Nixon's a very clever politician.

“He’s retained those arsenals of commissions and boards,” Jones said. “It’s really unfortunate that the governor is using the political power of his office to influence the representative democracy that we have in the House and to alter what the people of Missouri decided just a few months ago.”

Jones conceded though if the governor “would like to continue to play those political games, there’s not very much I can do about it.”

“If he feels that they are qualified candidates, next time I’d appreciate it if Jay Nixon gave me a call first so we could work through the process and decide how we’re going to replace those people who were overwhelmingly voted into the super-majority,” Jones said.

Nixon’s office declined to comment on Jones’ statements. But the tussle is one example where the governor may have a leg up over the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature.

For House members who are teetering on the edge of term limits with no obvious path to the Missouri Senate, an appointment could be a way to continue to influence public policy – and earn a paycheck. Members of the probation and parole board, for instance, make $83,095, a big salary boost over a $35,915 annual legislative salary.

Nixon is hardly the first governor to use his appointment power to outflank a rival political party.

When Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, appointed then-Cass County Circuit Judge Joe Dandurand to the Missouri Court of Appeals in 2007, it was widely seen as making it easier for a Republican to replace then-attorney general hopeful Chris Koster in the Missouri Senate.

An even more acute example was Webster Groves attorney Kevin Gunn's appointment to the Public Service Commission. Gunn -- a former aide to U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-St. Louis -- was actively raising money to run for a state Senate seat then held by Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood. But that bid ended when Blunt tapped Gunn to the PSC, a powerful entity responsible, among other things, for deciding rate cases involving utilities.

Senate Democrats were furious and even threatened to block Gunn’s appointment. But Gunn was eventually confirmed, arguably removing the best Democratic candidate for the seat.

Blunt's moves had a long-term impact: They greatly helped state Sens. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, and David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, win their respective elections in the 15th and 31st districts. Both are potential candidates for statewide office in 2016.

(And Gunn -- whom Nixon picked to be chairman of the PSC in 2011 -- likely has more influence and power in his current position than he ever would have had as a member of the Democratic minority in the Missouri Senate.)

When asked whether Blunt was wrong to make those two appointments, Jones emphasized that Gunn and Dandurand weren’t “pulled out of the General Assembly where it made an actual difference.” He also noted that neither had filed for either Senate seat.

“Now, honestly if I had 103 or 104 members – this would probably not be an issue,” Jones said. “But the governor knows exactly what he’s doing and I think it’s very politically opportunistic. I’m very sorry he chose to go that route.”

Tick tock, on the clock…

One reason Jones and other Republicans – such as Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles – are so irritated by Ruzicka's appointment is that Nixon has a lot of leeway on when to call a special election in his old district. It’s possible that the Lawrence County-based 157th District could be vacant for months, which could make it more difficult for the House to override a veto during the legislative session.

One thing to watch for is whether Nixon schedules a special election for Ruzicka's old seat at a different date than the 76th District. That St. Louis-based district, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, became vacant when then-Rep. Chris Carter, D-St. Louis, won election to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

Asked if he would like to see Carter’s seat filled as soon as possible and Ruzicka’s special election schedule way into the future, House Minority Leader Jake Hummel deadpanned “that’d be great.”

“On that issue, I think that the Democratic seat – as you could say – has been vacant a lot longer. I would like the governor to call that seat. I’m in no hurry for him to call the other one,” said Hummel, referring to the 76th District seat. “All joking aside, let’s be honest. That seat is open and those people need representation. So I think the responsible thing to do, whether or not we need the seat or not, is to have representation in that seat [and] in all seats.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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