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Tax cut bill fails as politicking turns fierce before and during veto session

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 11, 2013: The Missouri tax-cut bill died Wednesday when the House fell 15 votes short of the number needed to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto.

The final vote was 94-67 in favor of an override; 109 supportive votes were needed. The tally came after more than an hour of heated debate.

Because of the House's action, the Missouri Senate won't vote on it. The bill, HB253, had been the marquee measure of the veto session. Nixon had been campaigning for months to preserve his veto.

While the House debated tax cuts, the Senate swiftly dispatched a series of bills, including at least three bills that garnered the necessary override majorities there. But those Senate bills must wait until the House completes its much longer list of override candidates during the Wednesday's veto session.

The halls of the Missouri Capitol were packed Wednesday with lobbyists, pro-gun supporters and activists on both sides of the marquee issue — the vetoed, tax-cut bill — as legislators prepare to cast votes that will decide which measures vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon are resurrected.

The session has attracted an unusual amount of media attention, with the New York Times and Al Jazeera among those with reporters allegedly roaming the halls.

Hundreds attended a morning rally outside the Capitol in favor of HB436, the so-called "gun nullification bill," which would block enforcement of federal gun laws.

At the behest of Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, the crowd en masse turned to the state Supreme Court building, which also houses the office of Attorney General Chris Koster, and loudly shouted, "Boo!"

The crowd was protesting Koster's legal opinion that the gun bill was poorly written and could damage state's crime-fighting efforts. Backers of the bill — who are packing the halls, sporting pro-Second Amendment stickers — disagree.

To hear lobbyists on both sides talk, the votes don't appear to be there to save the tax-cut bill, in part because of Nixon's stiff lobbying.

On the fence is the fate of HB650, the so-called "Doe Run bill," which would limit damages for injured minors. The Doe Run Co. and the Missouri Trial Lawyers Association, on opposing sides, appear to have hired every lobbyist in town.

Within minutes after going into session, the Missouri Senate appeared to be caught in an unofficial filibuster launched by opponents of SB29, a bill that would require public-employee unions — except for those representing police and fire — to obtain annual approval from employees before fees could be automatically deducted from their paychecks. The override was defeated 22-11.

The Senate did, however, override the governor's veto of SB28, which alters the circumstances where people can be denied unemployment benefits. They also overrode by a 24-10 margin SB 34, which would require the Division of Workers' Compensation to develop and maintain a database of workers' compensation claims. 

The Senate also overrode by a 23-10 margin SB 9, a wide-ranging agricultural bill includes a provision effectively eliminating the state's ban on foreign ownership of agricultural land. All of those bills still need a vote in the House to be completely overriden.

Both chambers overrode Nixon's line-item budget veto to take away a $1 million appropriation for reconstruction of the Pike-Lincoln Technical Center. Whether the decision has any impact remains to be seen, since Nixon could simply withhold the funds from the state budget.

 (As we previously reported)

With Wednesday's veto session looming, Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones predicts several “game time“ decisions on what vetoed bills will get a chance at resurrection via an override vote — and which ones will stay dead.

An exception will be made for one bill — HB253, the tax-cut measure that has generated controversy for months. "I think we need to vote on the tax cut bill,” said Jones, R-Eureka. "That’s an important plank in our platform."

Otherwise, the speaker said decisions on whether to attempt some overrides may not be determined until right before the session’s opening bell, set for noon Wednesday in both chambers.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, says pretty much the same thing.

Both legislative leaders will caucus privately late Tuesday with their chambers’ GOP majorities to determine which of Gov. Jay Nixon’s 29 vetoes stand a valid chance of being overridden and which ones don’t.

"We’ll have our game plan after that,” Dempsey said.

The first votes on Wednesday will be taken in the chamber where the vetoed bill originated. The hope is that the veto session will last only one day.

For Jones, the magic number is “four.“ He hopes to make history by having the General Assembly override four of Nixon’s vetoes – which would break the old record set a decade ago when another Democrat, Bob Holden, was governor.

Nixon dismissed any talk of an override count. "We're not in junior high here. This is serious business. I don't look at the scoreboard, I look at the substance of the bills,'' the governor told reporters after an appearance at Affton High School, where he included his pitch against an override of HB253.

The veto-session focus should be, Nixon added, "what thoughtful policies should we support?"

And for legislators, the governor said, "Folks have a very simple choice in 36 hours. They're either going to support public education, or they're going to support 253. They're either going to support strong tax policy that doesn't raise taxes on seniors and school kids, or they're going to support 253."

During his speech Affton, Nixon told the students that he was optimistic about his veto's chances. "The signs are that my veto will be sustained."

Later, the governor told reporters, "I've been heartened by the outpouring of support from informed, respectful citizens on this." (End update)

Jones lays out process for deciding override votes

Except for the tax-cut bill, most vetoed bills will face a last-minute vetting, both GOP leaders said.

At the House caucus, for example, each sponsor of a vetoed bill "will test the mood of the caucus and determine whether they can make any final sales pitches to get everybody to vote for the bill. Every single person," Jones said with emphasis.

The speaker noted that an override requires 109 House votes – which also is the exact number of House GOP legislators. Except in a couple of cases, no Democrats are expected to cross over and cast an override vote in opposition to Nixon.

“So if a sponsor hears 105 ‘yeses’ and a couple people saying ‘well I’m not sure,’ the sponsor is probably going to ask for a vote’’ during the official veto session, Jones said. “If a sponsor hears 12 people or 14 people or 18 people say, ‘I’d rather not vote on that bill,’ they may bring it up, talk about it, and then lay it over.

“We’re going to give everybody an opportunity to air their grievance against the governor for vetoing their bill,” Jones added with a chuckle. “I think everybody deserves that. And whether or not they call for a vote is ultimately up to the sponsor, based upon the reaction of the caucus.”

Battle continues over tax-cut measure

The most likely override attempts will be made in the House on no more than a dozen bills. The tax cut bill, also known as HB 253, is expected to be the marquee issue, just as it has been all summer.

Even the New York Times is paying attention to the political stakes.

Nixon has spent most of his time and travel this summer focusing on the bill, which slashes corporate income taxes in half – some over a five-year schedule – and trims individual tax rates slightly. It also would eliminate the existing sales tax exemptions for prescription drugs and college textbooks, although some sponsors say that was a mistake that will be rectified next session.

Nixon says the bill unfairly favors the wealthy, is unnecessary in a state with already low tax rates and will lead to huge cuts in state spending.  He also strongly opposes the sales tax hikes.

The bill’s allies say that it will spark economic growth and note that many of the provisions are phased in over five or 10 years and require at least $100 million in additional state income each year before going into effect.

Backers include the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Missouri, while opponents include many school districts and education groups. Wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield has bankrolled a $2.4 million TV and radio ad campaign in favor of the override.

The back-and-forth is continuing. Nationally known conservative Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, weighed in over the weekend by declaring that HB 253 was crucial if “Missouri hopes to remain economically competitive and bring back jobs.”

On the other side, educators and health-care groups headlined a news conference Monday in St. Louis County to call for Nixon’s veto to stand and warned of devastating cuts in education if it is overridden.

The speakers included University of Missouri-St. Louis Chancellor Tom George, who said that a strong education system is essential for economic growth. Constance Gully, interim president of Harris-Stowe State University, said Missouri’s public higher-education institutions have yet to bounce back financially from previous cuts in state aid over the past decade.

The educators were asked if they are concerned about retribution when pro-tax cut legislators decide next year’s allocations for public universities like UMSL. “I’m hoping not,’’ George said.

Referring to Jones, the chancellor added later, “Tim’s a good friend of mine. I’m hoping our friendship will go further.” George said he’d welcome more discussion on the best ways to increase state spending on education, while also encouraging economic development.

Jones replied, “I’m disappointed in our very intelligent and brilliant educators,” who the speaker said have been “predominantly regurgitating the governor’s talking points.”

Votes also likely on guns, insurance and Doe Run

Aside from the tax-cut bill, Jones predicts that some of the closest override votes will involve:

  • HB 436, the so-called “gun nullification bill” to bar Missouri law enforcement from enforcing any federal gun laws, lower the minimum age for people allowed to carry concealed weapons, authorize school personnel to be armed and bar publication of the name of any gun owner.
  • HB650, also known as the “Doe Run bill” that would limit court-approved damages for workers injured in the mines operated by the Jefferson County-based Doe Run Co.

Nixon contends that HB 650 was crafted to benefit improperly just one company, while Jones says the bill will create more jobs. Some labor unions – which generally are at odds with Jones – in this case are in the speaker’s camp and back an override.
Meanwhile, in the case of the gun bill, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and a parade of law-enforcement groups – some of whom often back Republicans – have joined forces against an override. Koster, a Democrat, says the bill is poorly crafted and would prevent Missouri law enforcement from serving on federal anti-crime task forces – even those involving terrorists – and would force local police departments to forfeit any federal aid. The state’s Police Chiefs Association, the Missouri Sheriffs Association and the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police say the measure also could lead to lawsuits filed by crime suspects against police.

Jones, also a lawyer, said he and other attorneys have examined HB436 and dispute Koster’s conclusions. “My opinion is, there is nothing in the bill that is going to at all affect the ability of law enforcement to enforce the laws of the state of Missouri,” Jones said.

“The only thing it will do is prevent unconstitutional enforcement of an unconstitutional federal law. And who will determine if a gun law is unconstitutional? A court will.”

Senate leader Dempsey said he was keenly interested in hearing the views of legal experts regarding HB436, before making a decision on whether to support an override.

Senate may tackle bill dealing with public-employee unions

In the Senate, Dempsey said part of Wednesday will be spent waiting on the House's votes, since more of the override candidates originated there. But the Senate has several vetoed measures that originated in its chamber and which he says may get a shot at override votes. They include:

  • SB29, dubbed "paycheck protection“ by backers and "paycheck deception“ by opponents, would require public-employee unions to obtain annual written consent from each employee before dues can be deducted from their paychecks. The act also would require annual consent for unions to use any fees and dues for political purposes.
  • SB28, a bill that would make it harder of people to qualify for unemployment benefits.

Dempsey said that he also may play a role in the Senate consideration of HB339, which imposes restrictions on uninsured motorists’ ability to recover damages in auto accidents. He had handled the Senate version of the measure.
Previewing the veto session in general, Dempsey said that some conservatives wrongly assume that just because there are 24 Republicans in the Senate and 109 in the House, that it's a sure thing that Nixon's vetoes can be overridden.

Such majorities don't mean all Republican legislators share the same views on all issues, he said. “It doesn’t take into account the complexity of the makeup of both legislative bodies.“

Filibusters, for example, often pose a threat in the Senate and can prompt decisions during veto sessions to kill off filibustered bills in order to consider less controversial measures.

"First, we need to be thoughtful in how we craft legislation," Dempsey said. "And after that, we do our best to build consensus. But that’s still hard.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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