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Government, Politics & Issues

On the trail Answering the five questions posed before this year's veto session

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If this past veto session were judged by the sheer amount of legislative activity, it was an unqualified success.

Whether it met expectations, however, is a completely different story.

Lawmakers ended up attempting veto overrides on the majority of bills Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed earlier in the summer – often successfully. Legislators overturned nine standalone bills and one line-item veto, which is a record in the modern era.

Included in the tally are potentially significant bills limiting punitive damages against Doe Run, curtailing the state's ban on foreign ownership of agricultural land and allowing licensed health-care professionals to provide volunteer services for a sponsoring organization.

But sheer number of overrides isn’t likely to mask disappointment – and some anger – over failing to override HB253, a multi-faceted tax cut bill that consumed most of the Missouri political world's attention over the summer. Lawmakers also didn’t override the high profile bills combating federal gun laws, altering the state’s sex offender registry and restricting automatic deduction on union dues.

Winners & Losers

For a chart, noting which vetoes were overridden, which survived and which had no action, check out "The veto session scorecard."

The failure to override some vetoes – especially the closely watched tax cut – will likely prompt plenty of reflection among Republicans, who possess super-majorities in both General Assembly chambers. Some proposals may be revamped during the next session, while others may fall by the legislative wayside.

But while much of the post-veto session focus may center on which political figure or interest group won or loss, it may be worthwhile to analyze why certain events transpired. To that end, let’s revisit the five questions posed a week before the veto session began:

1. How many vetoes will lawmakers try to override?

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, had hinted that the legislature would consider overriding most of Nixon's 29 vetoes. And to some extent, that prediction came true.

In total, legislators attempted overrides on 17 standalone bills and one line-item veto. They ended up overriding nine pieces of legislation and one line-item veto of an appropriation for a vocational school in northeast Missouri.

While lawmakers didn’t break recent precedent by spending more than one day conducting a veto session, they did spend a lot more time on the effort than usual. Unlike previous years, legislators tried to override a swath of bills – as opposed to one or two pieces of legislation.

Missouri Scout’s Dave Drebes had observed a few weeks ago that lawmakers may consider fewer bills were the tax cut override to fail. That prediction didn't come to pass, as the legislature kept the veto session churning even after the HB253 override failed.

The idea of an “insignificant veto session” may be tempered somewhat by the override of HB650, which among other things limited punitive damages for injuries at mines operated and maintained by the Doe Run Co. Other bills rescued from veto are likely to be impactful, although whether their enactment makes up for the failure of other veto overrides is likely in the eye of the beholder.

2. Will there be a vote on HB253?

There was a vote. And it did not go well at all.

The legislative math for enacting Rep. T.J. Berry’s bill cutting personal income, business and corporate tax was always tricky. Republicans needed all 109 members to vote affirmatively, including three members who opposed the measure in May. Republican unity was critical, since it was unlikely that the three Democrats who voted for the bill were going to override Nixon’s veto.

But despite a multi-million dollar ad campaign and a full court press from House GOP leadership, the Republican lawmaker tally against HB 253 grew from three to 15. None of the three Democrats – Reps. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, or Ed Schieffer, D-Troy – voted for the override. In short, the proposal experienced a full and epic collapse of support.

Of course, if supporters of HB253 wanted a recorded vote to shine a spotlight on Republican and Democratic defectors, they got their wish. But it’s highly unlikely that they are happy with the outcome.

3. Where will Democrats defy the governor?

A number of House and Senate Democrats did vote to override lower-profile bills. There was even a successful override of Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal’s bill to allow public officials to cast roll call votes through videoconferencing.

In some cases, House and Senate Democrats were united in opposition: All 10 Democratic senators voted against Sen. Dan Brown’s bill restricting deduction of union dues. House Democrats were united in opposition to the tax cut bill. And House and Senate Democrats were opposed to another bill altering hwo unemployment benefits are given out.

But while most of the overrides would have happened without Democratic defections, their support made some difference.

One example was the House vote for the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” which among other things sought to nullify federal gun laws and prevent federal agents from enforcing them. Without "yes" votes from three Democrats – Schieffer, Rep. Michael Frame, D-Jefferson County, and Rep. Ben Harris, D-Jefferson County – the measure wouldn’t have made it to the Missouri Senate.

And the “Doe Run” bill encountered significant opposition from a number of Republicans. That bill also would have died without support from nine House Democrats hailing primarily from the St. Louis region. Support from four Democratic senators proved critical, since two Republicans -- Sens. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, and Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia -- voted against it.

4. What role will the Senate Democrats play?

Because the tax cut bill didn’t make it to the Missouri Senate, Show Me State politicos missed a non-stop, 10-day filibuster from the Democratic caucus. That’s too bad, because Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, could have probably told some excellent stories about her time as a color commentator for Branson's high school basketball team. 

In most cases, Senate Democrats did not spend that much time holding up override votes. In the case of the Second Amendment Preservation Act, Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, probably spent more time lambasting Attorney General Chris Koster than any Democratic speech against the bill.

With the exception of the Doe Run bill, the Senate Democratic caucus played a rather supplementary role during veto session. Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, was the only Democratic caucus member to vote against every override. Chappelle-Nadal voted 11 times to override Nixon, the most out of anybody in the caucus. 

In fact, members of the Senate Republican caucus played a bigger role in killing legislation.

Sen. Gary Romine’s absence from voting on union dues deduction bill effectively prevented an override, while "no" votes from Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, and Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, torpedoed the Second Amendment Preservation Act.

5. How effective was Nixon’s barnstorming?

By vetoing 29 bills, Nixon took a more aggressive posture against the GOP-controlled legislature than in recent years. And some of his moves afterward probably affected override outcomes.

When Nixon highlighted how HB253 would end an exemption for sales tax on prescription drugs, it likely provided a substantial disincentive for the three Republican "no"votes to switch sides. And his decision to withhold $400 million from the budget placed leverage on lawmakers who may have had override reservations.

(The governor, by the way, announced on Thursday he was immediately releasing $215.2 million in funding for, among other things, education and mental health. A press release added the governor was assessing the fiscal impact "of a national arbitration panel regarding payments to states under the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.")

And while opposition of education groups to the tax bill likely played a big role in HB 253's demise, nobody would accuse the two-term chief executive of being complacent in trying to defeat that – or other bills. 

Of course, the fact that the General Assembly still overrode 10 of Nixon’s objections showcases the limits of the governor’s ability to deal with strongly Republican state legislature. As noted before, lawmakers could come back next year with a retooled tax cut that allays concerns of GOP members who voted against override.

And it could be argued that Attorney General Chris Koster and the state’s law enforcement community may have had a bigger role in torpedoing the Second Amendment Preservation Act. Koster’s last-minute letter against the proposal aroused harsh criticism from Nieves, who called the likely gubernatorial aspirant a “political monster” and a “political master.”

But in any case, it’s hard to argue that the governor's advocacy defending some vetoes didn’t make a difference. Whether it’s turning point in his relationship with legislature or an aberration will be seen in the months and weeks ahead.

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

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