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On the trail: Five things to look for during unusually active veto session

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It wasn’t too long ago that the General Assembly’s veto session was nothing more than a date on a calendar, with little or no importance in Missouri's political universe.

That was certainly the case in 2011 when the legislature quickly decided not to override any of Gov. Jay Nixon’s vetoes. Much the same happened during Gov. Matt Blunt’s  tenure, a period when the GOP-controlled legislature had little appetite for overruling a Republican governor.

This year's veto session, which starts Sept. 11, has morphed from a sleepy afterthought to a cataclysmic showdown -- thanks to the debate over House Bill 253, a tax cut bill that’s involved big money, national personalities and legislative bean counting.

Other controversies have popped up along the way, especially on bills dealing with gun rights, Doe Run, Missouri’s sex offender registry and videoconference voting. And those issues haven’t necessarily cut along traditional partisan or ideological lines.

With a little more than a week of barnstorming and speechifying left, here are five questions that could define the scope and impact of the session:

1. How many vetoes will lawmakers try to override?

On the Politically Speaking podcast, Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, noted that Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, had set aside Thursday and Friday for potential Senate debate. That in and of itself sets this veto session apart from others, mainly because veto sessions typically haven’t lasted longer than a day.

The added time could be needed because of the sheer number of bills that Nixon vetoed. The Missouri Times reported that most of the 29 bills that Nixon vetoed could be brought up. That would likely result in a  longer than usual session.

But Dave Drebes of Missouri Scout made an intriguing point: If the override of HB 253 isn't successful, would that affect whether the legislature pursues other overrides? “It’s a recipe for bad press if a Republican supermajority didn’t take up and pass something substantive, but instead managed override on” the Second Amendment Preservation Act or legislation aiming to counteract "Agenda 21," Drebes observed.

Drebes’ broader point? The success or failure of the HB 253 override could determine whether lawmakers can make a swift exit or are stuck in the Missouri Capitol for a long, long time.

2. Will there be a vote on HB 253?

Since the GOP has the exact number of members in the Missouri House – 109 -- to override a veto, individual defections matter. A number of Republicans have announced their opposition to an override, and not many Democrats say they’ll buck the governor. So the math doesn’t appear to be there to override HB 253.

But while House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, raised eyebrows when he said he might not even bring the measure up for a vote without assurances of every Republican lawmaker, there may still be pressure for a recorded tally of support and opposition for the bill. That’s been the argument among some conservative supporters of the legislation. They've argued it’s better to try and fail on the bill than to give political cover to Republicans.

A vote would also put two Democratic House members running for state Senate seats who initially voted for the bill – state Reps. Jeff Roorda, D-Jefferson County, and Ed Schieffer, D-Troy – on the record.

3. Where will Democrats defy the governor?

In this instance, eventful veto sessions may provide the best insight.

During last year’s veto session, socially conservative House Democrats were crucial in overriding Nixon’s veto on legislation allowing various entities to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization from insurance coverage. Democrats also made a big difference in overriding then-Gov. Bob Holden’s veto of a bill that set up conceal and carry in the Show Me State.

Former House Speaker Steve Tilley said last week that Democrats are more likely to abandon the governor on bills to expand gun rights or restrict abortion. And that may be why a number of Democratic lawmakers are poised to override Nixon’s veto of the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which, among other things, nullifies federal gun laws and prevents federal officials from enforcing those statutes.

“If it’s not a pro-life or pro-gun issue, Democrats will stick with their governor as Republicans would stick with theirs as a general rule,” Tilley said. “Because I can remember having meetings in my office with bills that had 140 or 150 votes trying to get enough Democrats to cross over and override. And they’d be like ‘no.’ Even though they voted for it three months earlier.”

Democrats may be inclined to cross over on bills that have little to do with social issues. A number of Jefferson County Democratic lawmakers may attempt to override legislation limiting legal damages for Doe Run. And Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, indicated she might try to override Nixon’s veto allowing local elected officials to vote via videoconferencing.

4. What role will Senate Democrats play?

Most of the focus is on the Missouri House because the bigger ticket bills – such as HB 253 and the “gun nullification” bill – started there. If the votes aren’t available in the House to override something, actions in the Missouri Senate become essentially moot.

But the Senate’s Democratic caucus could be under pressure if House Republicans finagle enough votes to pass HB 253.

In that particular case, Democrats may be asked to take on the difficult task of filibustering HB 253 to prevent a final vote. Because veto sessions can last as long as 10 calendar days, it would take an exceptionally well organized and creative rotation schedule to talk until the clock runs out.

For other bills – like the Second Amendment Preservation Act – Senate Democrats may let the measure through in the hope that a court would strike the bill down anyway. That was the strategy Senate Democrats took last year with the contraception bill, which was indeed struck down by the courts.

5. How effective was Nixon’s barnstorming?

One of the long-running questions about Nixon’s second term was how aggressive he would be in dealing with the GOP-controlled legislature, especially since he is barred from running for governor again in 2016.

That query was at least partially answered this summer, when Nixon embarked on a furious statewide tour to build public support against overriding HB 253. In addition to pointing out structural issues with the bill, Nixon also withheld hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget – significant leverage for Republicans (and conservative Democrats) who were on the fence.

Nixon's aggressive actions were likely necessary not only to combat the huge Republican majorities but also a multi-million dollar ad campaign funded by retired financer Rex Sinquefield aimed at overriding his tax cut veto.

But one downside of vetoing 29 bills is the finite amount of time that can be devoted to full court defenses. That may be why Nixon gradually shifted his public events to defend his other vetoes. It remains to be seen if his advocacy on other bills makes the difference.

And it’s possible that Republicans may regroup next session and come up with a retooled tax cut bill that alleviates concerns of wobbly GOP lawmakers. If that’s the case, Republicans may be in a better position next year for a rematch against the governor.  

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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