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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.

Legislators May Have Numbers To Counter Nixon's Vetoes

Gov. Jay Nixon speaks to a class at Rockwood Summit High School in Fenton.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI

(Updated at 1 p.m. Monday with additional comments from House Speaker Tim Jones.)

Gov. Jay Nixon proved that he can outdo himself, at least when it comes to vetoing legislation. 

Nixon struck down 33 bills this year, surpassing last year’s “personal best” of 29 vetoes. It’s perhaps the latest sign of his deteriorating relationship with the GOP-controlled Missouri General Assembly.

There's no better evidence of this than Nixon's particularly aggressive defense of his vetoes. He used the pejorative term “Friday favors” to describe the tax credit bills passed on the last day of session. He accused legislators of “copying and pasting” language from the American Legislative Exchange Committee, a favorite punching bag for progressive-leaning lawmakers.

And in veto message after veto message, Nixon derided the legislators for “drafting errors” – suggesting legislators are functionally incompetent as well as misguided.

Whether Nixon's feistiness can be attributed to term limits or a push toward the national spotlight is up for pundits to decide. But it's certain that lawmakers will get to respond in September when they convene their annual veto session.

GOP leaders in both chambers signaled they’re ready to override many of Nixon’s objections, perhaps topping the 10 bills propelled into law during last year’s veto session.

"We have a lot of analysis to go through," said House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, on Monday. "But I would just say with the sheer number and magnitude of bills, there's no reason why at first blush that this session may very well be as historic as the last one."

Jones said Nixon changed how he’s dealt with the legislature in his second term. He characterized “Jay Nixon 2.0” as a governor who doesn’t engage much with the General Assembly much during the session and then throws lawmakers’ work “out the window with one fell swoop with his veto pen.”

“If the governor’s not going to be a leader, the General Assembly will continue to lead,” Jones said. “But it’s honestly a much more difficult task when you have a governor who has no agenda and then simply complains all summer long about the legislature every year.”

Predicting the course of a veto session is notoriously difficult, as an overwhelmingly favorable vote during the session may not translate into an override. It’s possible, for instance, that lawmakers would rather work on a new bill in 2015 than fight for an override. And it’s also possible that the governor’s arguments could be persuasive, as seen with last year’s debate over tax cuts. 

But it’s equally possible that there’s enough political and ideological pressure to push back against the governor. That may be especially true this coming veto session because August special elections will ensure Republicans have 110 members in time for September.

For Nixon's veto to be overridden, 23 senators and 109 representatives would have to vote for an override. So here’s an early look at some of Nixon’s vetoes and the possibility that they’ll be overridden:

SB 656 – 'Arm-the-teachers' bill

State Sen. Will Kraus’ bill would have barred political subdivisions from banning anyone with a valid concealed carry permit from openly carrying of a firearm. It also would have lowered the age for obtaining a concealed carry permit to 19 from the current 21. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
The veto of Sen. Will Kraus' gun bill has an excellent chance of being overridden.

But arguably the most controversial aspect was a provision allowing teachers to become “school protection officers” after a certain amount of training and approval from a school board.

Why Nixon vetoed the bill: Nixon said that he’s “consistently opposed the arming of teachers as a means to keep schools safe.” He went onto say that Kraus’ bill “would not make schools safer.”

Can it be overridden? Yes.

Kraus’ bill didn’t receive a veto-proof majority in the Senate because several Republican lawmakers were absent. But it got 111 votes in the House even though 20 members didn't vote.

Like abortion restrictions, Second Amendment-related bills tend to gather support from virtually all of the state’s Republican lawmakers and some conservative Democrats. The bill in question hasn’t generated nearly as much controversy as last year’s “gun nullification” bill, which suggests a better chance of an override.

HB 1307 – Abortion waiting period

State Rep. Kevin Elmer’s legislation would extend the waiting period to get an abortion to 72 hours from 24 hours. Proponents say increasing the waiting period may give a woman enough reflection time to not have an abortion. 

Why Nixon vetoed the bill: Nixon has let abortion restrictions go into effect without his signature. But he struck down Elmer’s bill because it didn’t provide an exception for rape or incest, which he said reflected “a callous disregard for women who find themselves in horrific circumstances.”

Can it be overridden? The chances are high.

Like SB 656, Elmer's bill didn’t receive a veto-proof majority in the Senate because only 22 out of 23 Republicans were present. It did receive 111 votes in the House – a tally that could have been larger if several absent legislators had been around.

Barring a major change of heart from lawmakers in the House or an absent Republican senator, the numbers are there to override Nixon’s veto. It doesn’t help that a number of socially conservative Democrats – such as state Reps. Ben Harris, D-Jefferson County, and Ed Schieffer, D-Troy – will likely not back down from their initial votes.

SB 673 – Changes to unemployment benefits

State Sen. Mike Kehoe’s bill would have tied the number of weeks a person could receive unemployment benefits to the state’s unemployment rate. Missouri currently provides 20 weeks of unemployment benefits, which is already below the national norm of 26 weeks. 

The Missouri Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit challenging the appointment of former state Sen. Mike Kehoe, pictured here on the Senate floor, as lieutenant governor.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
It may be a close call to pass Sen. Mike Kehoe's bill restricting unemployment benefits.

Under the bill, the state would offer only  13 weeks of unemployment benefits if the unemployment rate drops below 6 percent. It would stay at 20 weeks if the jobless rate is over 9 percent.

Why Nixon vetoed the bill: Nixon noted in his veto letter that Missouri’s unemployment benefits are already fairly restrictive. He went onto say that Kehoe’s bill “is not only unnecessary, it would also be damaging to our economy and unfair to communities that experience a spike in unemployment due to a factory closure or a natural disaster.”

Can it be overridden?  This may be a case where the two Republicans likely to win August special elections may matter.

Kehoe’s bill passed with 101 votes in the House – eight votes shy of a veto-proof majority. Even if the five Republicans who were absent during the session vote for an override, the legislation would still be short of 109 votes.

The two new Republicans members would push the tally up to 108 – one vote short of an override. If Republican leadership – and groups like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce – apply the right kind of persuasion, it may be enough. 

SB 493 – The 'student transfer' bill

Arguably the most significant -- and controversial -- bill of the legislative session was state Sen. David Pearce’s legislation overhauling student transfers. The bill (which reporter Dale Singer broke down here) included the so-called “private option,” which would have allowed children in unaccredited school districts to go to non-sectarian, private institutions under certain circumstances. 

Credit Tim Bommel, House Communications
A number of Republicans voted against a wide-ranging "school transfer" bill. And it also drew the ire of Democrats, such as Rep. Josh Peters, D-St. Louis.

Why Nixon vetoed the bill: Nixon stated the bill “fails to address the challenges resulting from the existing school transfer law and instead, would create even more problems by allowing public funds to be used for private schools and pulling the rug out from under students who have transferred.”

Besides objecting to the “private option,” Nixon didn’t like how the bill eliminated the requirement that unaccredited districts would have to pay transportation costs.

Can it be overridden? It will be tough.

Pearce’s bill managed to receive bipartisan support in the Senate. But it faced a far rougher reception in the House, where it received only 89 votes. That “no” votes included a bunch of Republicans from all over the state, suggesting that it would take some serious convincing from GOP leadership to get to 109.

If Republican House members don't budge, the bill is effectively dead. That's especially the case since few Democrats who voted against the bill -- like Rep. Josh Peters, D-St. Louis -- are likely to change course.

"I believe that the folks in Normandy deserve way more than what they’re getting," Peters said. "But I’m glad that the governor stood by those of us in the Black Caucus and in the Democratic Party who actually know what’s in the best interest of the students and vetoed the bill." 

In many respects, the bill has faded from conversation since the state Board of Education took various steps to slow down transfers from the newly reconfigured Normandy Schools Collaborative. Some of those moves weren’t universally popular, but it’s unknown whether they’ll provide the momentum to override the veto of Pearce’s legislation.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed -- who voted for the transfer bill -- said she doubts legislators will even bring the bill up for an override attempt. Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said legislators "were punched in the stomach and the wind was knocked out of them" when Nixon vetoed the bill.

'Friday favors'

Lawmakers passed 10 bills containing numerous tax breaks during the last day of the Missouri General Assembly’s session. They included tax breaks for wine growers, data centers, utility companies, dry cleaners and farmers markets. (Click here to read Jo Mannies’ story about the bills.)  

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
The fate of a number of tax credit bills may hinge on whether Democratic senators stick with Nixon.

Why Nixon vetoed the bill: Nixon has used especially harsh language to describe the 10 bills, which he dubbed “Friday favors.” He called the measures “carve outs and loopholes” that would “undermine local public services and flout the will of voters by eroding revenues that support services like firefighters and cops, libraries and ambulance services, snow plows and health inspectors, public transit and road repair.”  

The governor has spent the last few weeks lambasting the bills across the state. He’s also cited the bills as a reason to withhold funds from the state’s budget.

Can it be overridden? This one’s tricky.

For one thing, the 10 bills in question passed with varying degrees of support. Some made it to Nixon with little or no opposition in either chamber, while others – such as a data storage incentive – didn’t receive approval by a veto-proof majority in the House.

During a veto session, it's common for legislators from a governor’s party to vote against an override. That’s what happened in 2008 when Republicans chose not to override then-Gov. Matt Blunt's veto of legislation allowing a voting student member of the Missouri Board of Curators. And it happened in several instances during last year’s surprisingly busy veto session.

This scenario could spell trouble for the bills, especially in the Missouri Senate. If the Senate’s Democrats vote in a bloc against any of the bills and are joined by a Republican senator, override chances are effectively squelched. GOP defectors may not be that hard to find in the Senate, especially since several have spoken out against tax credits in recent years.

For her part, Nasheed said isn't willing to override the tax breaks.

"I truly believe that if we’re going to reduce revenue coming out of the general revenue, then we have to find a place to replace those dollars," she said. "Education, senior services -- all of those things will be impacted as a result of those tax bills." 

On the 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.