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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.

Campaign trail: Nixon's warning against car tax override may fall on deaf ears

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 31, 2012 - Everyone agreed? No new taxes?

That was certainly the gist of a letter from Gov. Jay Nixon warning the legislature against overriding his veto of an auto-tax bill. But not everyone seems to be signing on -- especially state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, who handled the legislation earlier this year. 

The bill in question abrogated a Missouri Supreme Court decision that tossed out local taxes on vehicles purchased out-of-state unless the local jurisdictions had voted for such a tax.

The Democratic governor vetoed that bill, and his administration released a letter Monday in which Nixon warned lawmakers that an override would result in 122,702 buyers having “to pay an additional and unexpected local tax.” It also alluded to how Missourians that buy vehicles from other individuals through online services such as Craigslist would be affected. 

Kehoe said the governor’s letter proves just how important the bill is. He added that he still plans to bring it up during the September veto session if it reaches the Missouri Senate. (The bill originated in the Missouri House, and House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, already signaled in July that the House would try to override Nixon on the issue. The handler of the House bill, state Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Clay County, didn't return a message from the Beacon.)

“If 122,700 boats, RVs, cars and trucks have been bought outside of our state borders, that’s a problem,” Kehoe said in a telephone interview. “Every time those vehicles are bought outside our state borders, that’s a piece of some Missouri job somewhere.”

Kehoe, who has quite a bit of name recognition in mid-Missouri for being the face of popular car dealerships, said vehicle dealers near the state’s borders are “getting their brains beat out” by out-of-state competition. And that could have an impact, he said, on their staffing.

“When small businesses – car dealers, boat dealers, RV dealers – start losing these sales to competitive states that are now advertising aggressively in our state, they’re going to start not needing as many employees,” Kehoe said.

Without the bill, local municipalities and counties would be without the local tax revenue, said Kehoe, who added that the state "doesn’t have the resources to backfill those funds" for police, fire and road services that local jurisdictions provide.

Nixon argued that the bill would amount to a tax increase without a public vote. In July, Nixon said, “In jurisdictions that have voted against such a tax, this bill would impose a new tax in direct conflict with the will of the voters.

“I am vetoing this tax increase to protect the rights of Missouri voters,” Nixon said at the time. “I am committed to continuing to work with local governments, legislators and Missouri’s auto dealers to craft a practical solution on this issue, but I cannot support imposing a new tax without a vote of the people.”

Nixon’s decision was backed up by Carl Bearden, a former GOP legislator from St. Charles in charge of United for Missouri. He said in a blog post praising Nixon’s decisionthat his group would send out “action alerts” before the Sept. 12 veto session.

"It is true that car dealers in the state might be at some disadvantage with the tax," Bearden wrote. "Most information indicates people will not go too far out of their way to save a few bucks. It’s unfortunate that local dealers did not encourage their cities and counties to place a local use tax before their voters to legally even the playing field. Going around the people is not only wrong, it’s against the Missouri Constitution."

Schaaf switches sides

At least one lawmaker is changing course on the auto-tax bill, conceding that it was wrong to vote for the measure when it came up earlier this year.

State Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, told the Beacon he'd vote to sustain the governor’s veto, adding that the measure’s chances of getting overridden are “approximately zero.”

“When it passed, I don’t think the full information was really discussed,” Schaaf said. “Now we find out that 120,000 people are going to get tax bills. And it’s just wrong to have a retroactive tax. And so, I believe there won’t be support in the House. And if there is support, I certainly don’t think there will be support in the Senate for it – that’s just my feeling.”

Schaaf said his decision to support the bill during regular session was the “wrong vote considering the information that’s come to light.”

“The governor’s letter was right on point,” Schaaf said. “I read the governor’s veto message. And I thought it was a very well-done veto message. … I think that the correct thing to have done would have been not to pass the bill. But you don’t always have the information when you vote on bills. And the process works.  We have the process where we do the best we can when we’re considering legislation. And then the governor has lots of time and lots of staff to vet things and find flaws.”

Kehoe, though, has higher hopes than Schaaf in getting Nixon's objection overturned.

“Obviously the governor’s letter is created to put fear in elected officials, many of whom are running in an election right now,” said Kehoe, who is up for re-election in 2014. “But based on whom I’m talking to in the House and in the Senate, they’re hearing from their municipalities, they’re hearing from small business car dealers and RV dealers that are in their districts. And they’re saying that this is critically important.

“So I think the chances are pretty darn good that we get a good debate on this and get it overridden,” he added. “It’s one of those things that’s not politically popular, maybe. But I’m not in this for politics.”

Weter leaves House

Nixon made overriding the veto in the House a little bit more difficult this week when he appointed state Rep. Ray Weter to the Christian County Commission. 

With the appointment, Weter then immediately resigned from the Missouri House. That means that Republicans will need an additional vote to override any of Nixon’s vetoes. Besides the auto-tax measure, Republicans will likely try to overturn Nixon’s veto of a bill allowing employers to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization from insurance coverage.

Both of those bills passed with more than five Democratic votes, although it’s not uncommon for legislators of the governor’s party to switch votes during an override.

The Republicans hold a 104-57 edge in the Missouri House, five members short of a veto-proof majority. In addition to Weter, Steve Tilley, the former Republican speaker of the Missouri House, resigned earlier this month. The GOP hold a 26-8 edge in the Missouri Senate, three more than what's needed to override a veto.

Campaign 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.