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Nixon Blasts Legislative Session As 'Abysmal,' While GOP Leaders Call It 'Historic'

Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri House and Senate each spent the waning minutes of the legislative session embroiled in debate over a bill to nullify most federal gun laws.

But afterward, it was Gov. Jay Nixon who fired off the first post-session shots. His target was the General Assembly’s final-day spending spree.

  In the last eight hours of the session, Nixon said, legislators approved at least eight bills calling for close to $500 million in new spending – which he called “irresponsible" since none of that new spending was accounted for in the budget that legislators had approved a week earlier.

His anger visible, Nixon asserted that the upshot was that the General Assembly “abysmally failed in one of its basic responsibilities” and had tossed a financial mess in his administration’s lap.

“This is a very wrong path, and I’m going to correct it,’’ the governor said tersely, alluding to his constitutional powers to cut, curtail or delay state spending to balance the state’s budget.

Nixon implied that he will veto many of the new spending bills, which ranged from tax breaks for data centers to tax exemptions for restaurants and farmers’ markets. He dubbed them “a cavalcade of new tax breaks,’’ which were detailed in a list circulated by state Budget Director Linda Luebbering.

Ironically, one of the General Assembly’s last acts this session was to place on the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment to curb the governor’s power over state spending. 

Legislators laud tax cuts and veto override

Nixon’s focus was almost entirely on the legislators' spending; he barely mentioned any of the session’s other legislative actions. The governor said he would address those issues later.

Credit File photo
Tim Jones

But those other matters – notably tax cuts, the "private option" in the student transfer bill,  criminal code revisions and abortion restrictions – were touted by Republican leaders in both chambers in their post-session news conferences held before the governor lambasted their performance.

House Speaker Tim Jones and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey focused on what they viewed as the session’s major achievements – the General Assembly’s approval of a tax cut package estimated to cut state revenue by about $620 million a year when fully phased in. Nixon opposed it.

Jones lauded what he called “an historic veto override of historic tax reduction and reform  legislation.”  The beneficiaries, he said, will be average Missouri workers and businesses.

The tax cut in question, Senate Bill 509, calls for reducing the state’s tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent over five years and phasing in a 25 percent deduction for business income over that same period. The cuts are to begin in 2017, but will go into effect only if state income increases by $150 million a year.

Dempsey highlighted the school-transfer bill, Senate Bill 493, that sets in place, among other things, a “private option” that would allow students to transfer from public schools to private, nonsectarian schools. The bill is aimed at addressing the expensive student transfers now underway because the Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts have lost their accreditation.

“The overwhelming bipartisan vote proved the legislature takes this transfer situation very seriously and was willing to step up and make the tough decisions,” said Dempsey. “We took time to fully debate and carefully construct this legislation to finally put a process in place that furthers our goal of providing a quality education for every child in the state of Missouri.”

The transfer bill now awaits Nixon’s action, with the governor hinting Friday that he might veto it as well.  Nixon reaffirmed his belief that sending state money to private schools violates the state constitution. “I fail to see why it was necessary to have an experiment like that’’ in the bill, the governor said.

But when asked if he might call a special session to force a new approach to the transfer issue, Nixon retorted, “Today is not a particularly good day to ask me if I want to bring them back for additional action.”

Guns, tax breaks dominate final day

Although the state House and Senate tackled dozens of bills on Friday’s final day of the session – the House didn’t even break for lunch – much of the attention revolved around two bills addressing the same topic: guns.

The House approved a final version of gun-rights bill,passed earlier by the Senate, that lowers the state’s minimum age for carrying concealed weapons to 19 from 21 and allows the open carrying of firearms by any person with a valid concealed-carry permit.

The measure bars local governments from banning the open display of firearms, and also allows schools to designate teachers or administrators as "school protection officers" who can carry a concealed firearm or self-defense spray device.

During the final hour of the session, the House then resurrected a gun measure that had been declared dead earlier in the week: House Bill 1439, which sought to nullify most federal gun laws and bar their enforcement.

House Democrats conducted a rare mini-filibuster to eat up time, resulting in the House voting 99-32 in favor of the bill – but sending it over to the Senate only 20 minutes  before adjournment.

Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, then led a successful filibuster that shut down the nullification bill.  It was the Justus' last major act in the Senate; she is leaving after this year because of term limits.

Earlier this month, the General Assembly also approved a ballot measure that backers say is aimed at protecting Second Amendment rights.  The proposal is similar to language already approved by voters in Kansas and Louisiana and slated to be on the ballot this fall in Oklahoma.

Transportation tax, abortion highlight final week

In fact, this General Assembly made a habit of approving proposed ballot measures as a way to avoid the governor, who has no role in putting such proposals on the ballot.

Legislators also have placed on this fall’s ballot:

  • A proposed constitutional amendment to allow early voting for the six business days prior to an election. Early voting would be allowed only during business hours;
  • A proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee the privacy of electronic communications and data;
  • A proposed three-fourth cent transportation sales tax to raise money primarily for road and bridge improvements, including a widening of Interstate 70.

Arguably the most emotional debate during the final week dealt with abortion, an issue frequently pressed by social conservatives and anti-abortion groups.
Lawmakers passed a bill that would triple Missouri’s waiting period for women seeking abortions to 72 hours from 24 hours, with no exceptions for rape or incest. If  it becomes law, Missouri would be only the third state in the country to have such a long waiting period. Nixon has hinted that he may veto the measure, despite the threat of another veto override.

Other major legislative actions during the session included a massive overhaul of the state’s criminal code, and the elimination of a lifetime food stamp ban for people who have been convicted of a felony.

Credit File photo
Jay Nixon

Meanwhile, the General Assembly rejected Nixon's call to expand the state's Medicaid program to include about 300,000 low-income Missourians, as sought by the federal Affordable Care Act. The federal government has promised to pay all the expansion costs for the first three years, and at least 90 percent thereafter.

Nixon and his allies say the expansion would have created 24,000 jobs and made Missouri more attractive for businesses.  Republican leaders say they philosophically oppose such a large government role in health care, and also believe that the federal government can't afford to cover the added cost.

Business groups, labor laud session – for different reasons

Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, displayed a broad smile as he wandered through the state Capitol during the session’s final hours.

Aboussie acknowledged that he was primarily happybecause of what the General Assembly failed to do. “It was a good session for us,’’ he said, citing the demise of all the major anti-union bills, notably “right to work” – which would have banned closed-union shops – and the so-called “paycheck protection act,’’ which would have barred payroll deduction of union dues for public employees.

Aboussie gave credit to a different approach by unions in challenging the bills. “We kind of did a great job of not just blocking and tackling, but also educating,’’ he said. Aboussie added that unions did a better job this session of getting current and retired members – many of them Republicans -- to call legislators to make their opposition known.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an allied group,  Associated Industries of Missouri, praised the General Assembly for putting the tax cut measure in place, as well as several other employment-related bills.

Chamber vice president Tracy King was lobbying hard Friday to persuade legislators to approve a sales-tax break for data centers. She said there are currently 257 data centers in the state that employ close to 11,000 workers.

King contended that some of those centers may leave the state, and others won’t even consider Missouri, unless the state offers some of the tax breaks that other states are offering.

Friday afternoon, the General Assembly approved the desired sales tax exemption for data centers.  But Nixon and his budget team say the tax break will cost the state $220 million a year – so it may get vetoed.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.