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On the trail Nixon's veto spree gives lawmakers plenty of override options

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2013: Gov. Jay Nixon used his veto pen more than ever this year. But he wants legislators to know he didn't do it to hurt their feelings.

Gov. Jay Nixon responds to a question about his pace of vetoing legislation at a bill signing in St. Louis.

“It’s not personal,” quipped Nixon, responding to a question about his veto spree last week during a bill signing in St. Louis.

Excluding budgetary vetoes, Nixon vetoed 29 bills this year – more than in any of his previous four years in office. He signed 129 bills and let four pieces of legislation go into effect without his signature.

The high veto count could be attributed, Nixon said, to philosophical objections with some bills, as well as the fast pace of legislating in the final days of session.

“Quite frankly, I know as a former member of the legislature, you get in that last week or 10 days and 100 bills are flying in front of you and all that stuff’s going on, there’s a whole lot of unintended consequences that can happen from legislation,” said Nixon, who served as a state senator before he became attorney general and governor. “And I think I’ve been able to point out some of those.”

Some vetoed bills would be considered symbolic in nature – such as legislation to designate part of Interstate 70 in Montgomery County as “Graham’s Picnic Rock Highway.” Other vetoed bills, though, could have a much bigger impact – including a multi-faceted bill cutting income, business and corporate income taxes.

Nixon also showcased some additional aggressiveness after his vetoes. That includes withholding $400 million from the state's budget, which he attributed to fears that the tax cut legislation would be overridden.

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, said Nixon exhibited similar patterns to past years. For instance, he vetoed bills that were seen as unfavorable to organized labor. Or he let abortion restrictions go into effect without his signature.

But Connor did contend that Nixon’s rhetoric in his public statements and in his veto messages has been more assertive. That could be attributed, Connor said, to the fact that Nixon’s time is office is dwindling.

“He appears to be a little bit more of a Democrat than he has been in the past,” said Connor, alluding to Nixon’s moderate to conservative stands on some issues. “And I think there’s an obvious explanation for that he’s a lame duck. He can afford to do things now that he couldn’t do before.”

Connor added that the governor has “to be strategic because we assume that Gov. Nixon has a political future somewhere.” 

Regardless of Nixon's rationales, the General Assembly will have to decide whether to override his vetoes. They’ll be back Sept. 11 for the legislature’s annual veto session, and it’s highly likely some bills Nixon struck down could rise from the legislative dead.

For Nixon's veto to be overridden, 23 senators and 109 representatives would have to vote for an override. In the House, a veto override will be tricky without Democratic defectors -- since Republicans hold exactly 109 seats. (They had 110 in mid-May, but shrunk slightly when Republican Jason Smith was elected to Congress.)

Here are five vetoed bills that run the gamut from having no chance to an excellent chance of an override.

HB 253 – Broad-Based Tax Relief Act of 2013 

State Rep. T.J. Berry and State Sen. Eric Schmitt's legislation would have cut the state's personal income, business and corporate taxes. It also contains "triggers" to delay cuts in tax rates if general revenue doesn't go up by a certain amount. 

Proponents of the bill – including many major business groups -- contend that cutting taxes will attract businesses to the state and bring tax relief to Missourians.

Why Nixon vetoed it: The governor crafted a six-page veto message, arguing the bill would drain critical resources from the state’s coffers. He also pointed to language in the bill to remove a sales tax exemption for prescription drugs.

Can it be overridden? It will be tough.

Not only will the bill need to retain most of its support in the Senate, but also the math appears quite difficult in the House. That’s because three Democrats who voted for the bill likely won’t vote to override. That means backers will need to convince three Republicans who voted against the bill to switch. And with Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville, coming out against an override, at least one Democratic lawmaker will have to join with Republicans.

But three of the state’s main business groups are pulling out all the stops to get the bill overridden, including a television campaign that starts today. The ad blitz received substantial financial backing from retired financer Rex Sinquefield, who’s contributed $1.6 million to several PACs in support of the override.

Schmitt was likely accurate earlier this summer when he told the Beacon “the stakes have never been higher” when it comes to a veto override.

HB 436 – 'Second Amendment Preservation Act'

House Rep. Douglas Funderburk's bill declares that "all past, present, or future federal acts, laws, orders, rules, or regulations that infringe on the people's right to keep and bear arms" are "invalid, will not be recognized, are specifically rejected, and will be considered null and void and of no effect in this state."

The legislation would also allow school districts to designate "school protection officers" who can carry concealed weapons and it lowers the conceal and carry age from 21 to 19. It also includes language to makes it illegal to publish the names of any gun-owners.

Why Nixon vetoed it: In a statement, Nixon called the bill “an unnecessary and unconstitutional attempt to nullify federal laws” that would have “violated Missourians’ First Amendment right to free speech – while doing nothing to protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owner.”

Can it be overridden? Highly possible. House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, already told various media that he would vote to override Nixon’s veto. It received well in excess of 109 votes in the House – including several Democratic lawmakers. If those numbers hold, Nixon's veto could be overridden.

One wildcard is whether Senate Democrats decide to filibuster. Because the bill’s provisions will likely face litigation, Senate Democrats may let it go the courtroom instead of dwelling on the measure.

SB 29 – 'Paycheck protection/Paycheck deception'

Sen. Dan Brown's legislation would require public-employee unions to get approval of members annually before dues could be automatically deducted. The bill -- dubbed "paycheck protection" by its proponents and "paycheck deception" by its critics -- would also separate approval for any union political contributions.

Why Nixon vetoed it: Nixon said in his veto message that the bill “places unnecessary burdens on public employees for the purpose of weakening labor organizations.” The veto was not unexpected – even Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, guessed before session ended that he would object.

Can it be overridden? Highly unlikely.

Brown’s bill managed to get the support of the Senate’s 24 Republicans, even a few – including Schmitt, R-Glendale, Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Ryan Silvey, R-Clay County – who received the AFL-CIO’s endorsement last year. But the bill’s passage in the House by an 85-69 margin is well below the two-thirds threshold. That make an override attempt highly unlikely.

SB 28 – Unemployment benefits

Sen. Will Kraus' bill changes the definition of "misconduct" and "good cause" for people seeking unemployment compensation. The bill was a major priority for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, a group that argued that the current definition for misconduct makes it "extremely difficult" to deny unemployment benefits. 

Why Nixon vetoed it: In his veto message, Nixon said that the bill was too expansive. He said, “What employees do on their own time should not be used as a basis for denying unemployment benefits, except in the narrow circumstances already set forth in law.” He gave an example of somebody not getting unemployment benefits if the person fails to show up to a company-mandated softball game.

Can it be overridden? It’s possible, but it will take some work. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce designated Kraus’ bill as a major priority, so there may be some push to get the veto overridden.

The bill passed with 32 "yes" votes in the Missouri Senate. But it only nabbed 98 "yes" votes in the House. That means backers will have to get some Republicans to flip – or nab some Democratic defectors.

SB 170 – Voting by videoconferencing

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal's bill would allow members of a government body to cast roll call votes if that person is participating in meetings via videoconferencing.

On last week’s episode of the Politically Speaking podcast, Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said the bill was aimed at making it more convenient for people to get involved in local government – including entities like school boards. (In addition to her legislative post, Chappelle-Nadal is a member of the University City School Board.)

Why Nixon vetoed it:  In his veto message, Nixon said, “While it may be understandable to provide this tool to accommodate the occasional scheduling conflict, no limit is placed on the number of meetings a member could attend by videoconference.” He went onto say the requirement “that members of elected boards be physically present to vote” represents “the paramount responsibility they have been entrusted with by the voters.”

Can it be overridden? If the lawmakers stick to their votes, yes. Chappelle-Nadal’s bill passed 34-0 in the Missouri Senate and 142-8 in the Missouri House. Chappelle-Nadal said she would considering her options in September.

There is, however, precedent of legislation with broad support not getting overridden. That was the case back in 2008, when a bill allowing a student member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators made it to Gov. Matt Blunt’s desk with broad support. But a veto overridde failed when most Senate Republicans switched sides.

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

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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