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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.

On the trail: Walker contends broader input needed to pass new tax cut bill

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2013: In the wake of the Missouri Legislature's failure to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a tax-cut bill, some Republicans called out the 15 members of their party who went against the leadership and the rest of the caucus.

But one of those 15, Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville, fired his own shot at the GOP leadership. He stressed that if his party wants to enact legislation cutting taxes, they’ll have to embark on a more comprehensive strategy that brings in some of the critics.

“If they’re going to get a meaningful tax cut bill, they’re going to have to have us,” said Walker (who won election last year to the Missouri House after a prior legislative stint in the 1980s) in a telephone interview with the Beacon. “Because if they bring forward a bill that the governor’s going to veto, the same scenario will happen.”

The bill that got all the attention was sponsored by Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney. HB253 would have cut income, business and corporate income taxes. (It also increased sales taxes on prescription drugs and college textbooks.)

Last week’s attempt to override HB253 fell far short of the 109 votes needed to overturn Gov. Jay Nixon’s objection, garnering the opposition of 15 Republicans and every member of the House Democratic caucus.

Walker likely raised eyebrows earlier this week when he sent an email message to the other 14 GOP lawmakers who voted against the bill.

The message included a scathing rebuke of House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. In his message, first reported by the Missouri Times, Walker wrote that he was “proud to be recognized with you all on the 'Wall of Shame’ or any where else they want to link the 15 of us.”

Walker was referring to threats from some groups backing HB253, who have dubbed the 15 House Republicans who voted against the override "the flimsy fifteen" and hinted at political punishment. Some groups – like Missouri Club for Growth – have threatened to fund primary opponents of Republicans who voted against the override.

After saying he’d be willing to talk to anybody who needed “any moral support,” Walker wrote: “One thing that I know for sure, you all are of the highest integrity … something I can NOT say for our Speaker Tim Jones.”

“What a disgrace he has become,” Walker wrote. “Talking out of both sides of his mouth … throwing us under his AG Campaign bus.”

Jones – a likely candidate for attorney general in 2016 – has been particularly forthright in his support for Berry’s bill. The speaker also has been critical of Republican lawmakers who voted to sustain Nixon’s veto.

Jones contended on the Dana Loesch Show that many fellow Republican lawmakers “buckled under the pressure of the misrepresentations … by the taxpayer-funded fly-arounds all summer long" by the governor.

The speaker also said on that show that lawmakers who voted against the bill “are going to have to go back home and explain why they voted against the first broad-based tax relief package in nearly a century for all Missourians.”

Walker said the e-mail was not intended to stir up any problems. But, he added, it was meant “to reinforce what we did and to kind of stand in solidarity.” 

“Everything that I said, I stand by,” said Walker, adding that “maybe I was a little harsh with the words.”

Asked whether Jones pushed a vote for the bill to further his own statewide ambitions, Walker – who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1984 – replied, "You’d have to ask Tim Jones what he’s doing.”

Tom Smith, a top aide to Jones, told the Beacon that the speaker is trying to defuse misconceptions that he might punish members of the caucus who opposed the override of HB253.

"He is calling each member and letting them know that the media reports about losing chairmanships are either speculation from the media or maybe the desires of the media, but not reality," Smith said in a statement.

(Jones told the Associated Press that Walker “is a member of our caucus, and I look forward to working with him next year to pass legislation that will improve the lives of all Missourians.")

Walker said he talked with Berry last week to suggest ways to retool the legislation. He also said it might be worthwhile – and logistically sound – for competing sides to be at the table next year.

Backlash questioned

In the run-up to the veto session, Walker was one of the more outspoken GOP members against the tax-cut bill. He joined with others – including Nixon and numerous education groups – who contended the bill was poorly drafted and could hurt education funding.

The opposition came in the midst of a $2.4 million ad campaign from proponents of the override, underwritten by financier Rex Sinquefield.

Several GOP lawmakers who voted against HB253 – such as Reps. Elaine Gannon, R-Jefferson County, and Kent Hampton, R-Malden – are from “swing” districts, while others hailed from strongly Republican areas.

The latter group included such rural lawmakers as Rep. Lyle Rowland, R-Taney County. In his post-veto session newsletter, Rowland cited concerns about possible cuts to public education and services for the elderly and the bill's elimination of the sales tax exemption for prescription drugs.

"I am not against a reduction in our taxes ... I am against a bad piece of legislation," wrote Rowland, who faced no general-election opposition last year. "This is why I voted against HB253."

Other Republicans who voted against HB253 who faced either marginal or no Democratic opposition last year included: Reps. Jeff Messenger, R-Republic, David Wood, R-Versailles, and Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City.

Walker said those "no" votes should give HB253 supporters pause.

“If you look at the voting pattern, that’s 15 rural legislators who read the bill, analyzed the bill and figured out it was not a good bill,” Walker said. “It was a flawed bill. ... And it would probably be pretty harmful for our local communities.”

Since he voted against the override, Walker said he’s received an overwhelmingly positive response from his constituents and "never felt any intimidation or any threats from any place within my district."

Walker added that if "there were intimidation and threats, it was from all the people who had a lot of money and influence that came in.

“My district’s not for sale. I’m not for sale. And whatever happens as a result of my vote, I’m willing to live by that consequence or whatever,” Walker said. “But I know that I did the right thing.”

In fact, Walker said "four or five people who didn’t vote 'no'" may find that it would have been better for themselves politically to have opposed the tax cuts.

Walker said he was in the “super minority” during his first House stint in 1980s, when Democrats held huge majorities in the Missouri House. "The pendulum swings back and forth," Walker said.

“People ought to recognize that if they really want a tax cut, they’re going to have to have all of us (15 legislators who opposed HB253) come back or they can wait a couple years,” Walker said. “In a couple years from now, if the Republicans keep acting the way they are, we won’t have a supermajority.”

Two-way street?

For his part, state Sen. Eric Schmitt -- who handled the tax-cut bill in the Senate -- said many of the ideas in HB253 have been floating through the legislative waters for years.

Schmitt, R-Glendale, said it would be a wrong-headed premise to assume that the bill “all came about magically in 2013.”

For instance, Schmitt said he filed the business income deduction back in 2011.

He said there are both philosophical and competitive arguments to pass tax cuts that could appeal to all parties. That includes keeping pace with other states like Kansas and Oklahoma that are lowering their income tax rates.

“There was a lot of momentum going into 2013 to do something on tax relief,” said Schmitt, who added that he would welcome dissenters – including Nixon and education groups – to help craft new tax cut legislation.

“I’m more than willing – and I’m sure other people would be more than willing – to come to the table and talk to people who are genuinely interested in the reduction of tax rates to grow the economy,” Schmitt said. “But the question is are those folks interested in that?”

Schmitt also said the governor should be prepared next session to offer an alternative proposal. “There has been information that he is interested in working on that issue next year – we’ll see,” he said.

Schmitt said numerous people will spend between “now and January addressing some of the issues other people raised and coming forward early with another proposal next year.”

Besides the prescription drug issue, Schmitt said there could be some discussion on whether to lower rates by different intervals.

In any event, the senator added, “I don’t think this issue is going away.”

The GOP 15

Sue Entlicher, Bolivar

Paul Fitzwater, Potosi

Dennis Fowler, Advance

Lyndall Fraker, Marshfield

Elaine Gannon, DeSoto

Kent Hampton, Malden

Jeffrey Messenger, Republic

Lynn Morris, Nixa

Donna Pfautsch, Harrisonville

Don Phillips, Kimberling City

Craig Redmon, Canton

Lyle Rowland, Cedarcreek

Mike Thomson, Maryville

Nate Walker, Kirksville

David Wood, Versailles

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

Jo Mannies, Beacon political reporter, contributed information for this article.

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