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Fallout From Ferguson May Cloud Legislative Veto Session

Missouri Capitol
File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Capitol

The Missouri General Assembly’s veto-override session, which gets underway next Wednesday, once again is touching on familiar ground: abortion, guns, schools and state spending.

State House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, is particularly optimistic that legislators will override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill to extend the waiting period for an abortion to 72 hours, making Missouri only the third state in the country to do so.

But overshadowing all of that – and possibly upsetting predictions – is Ferguson.

August’s nationally watched unrest in Ferguson, following the fatal police shooting of teenager Michael Brown, appears to be igniting a series of political aftershocks.

Some members of the legislative Black Caucus remain angry with  Nixon, a fellow Democrat, over his actions – or non-actions -- notably his decision not to replace St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch with a special prosecutor to oversee the local investigation into Brown’s death.

Some legislators have threatened to take out their frustrations during the veto session by voting to override some of the governor’s vetoes.

But the caucus appears split, with some members – especially in the House – privately saying that they agreed with many of the governor’s vetoes and don’t want to vote for legislation they dislike just because they’re upset with him.

Nixon was unusually candid about any fallout from Ferguson, telling St. Louis reporters this week that “I don’t know how it will affect” the veto session.

The governor emphasized, however, that “the bills I vetoed...I did independently of any external activity of that nature.”  All of his vetoes were made weeks before Brown’s death.

Still, even some outstate legislators are expecting some St. Louis colleagues’ frustration over Ferguson to consume debate and possibly figure into any backroom deals over some vetoed bills.

State Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia, said during St. Louis Public Radio’s Politically Speaking podcast (to be posted soon) that he’s heard rumors of a possible Senate filibuster during veto session to highlight legislative differences over how to address the police issues generated by Ferguson.

Governor zeroes in on tax breaks, spending

Nixon set a personal record by vetoing 33 bills that the General Assembly passed last session. He also line-item vetoed more than 100 items in the General Assembly’s budget, which also appears to be a record.

That huge number of vetoes is a key reason Republican legislative leaders have warned lawmakers that the veto session could stretch over several days, which is rare.

Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon discusses his decisions to reinstate DNR Director Mark Templeton and dismiss long-time aide Joe Bindbeutel.
Credit Marshall Griffin, St. Louis Public Radio
Jay Nixon

Nixon has particularly focused on his vetoes of 10 bills that offered tax breaks for various businesses and activities, from luxury sports seats to dry cleaners. 

His budget staff has calculated that the bills – dubbed the “Friday favors’’ because most were approved the last day of session – would cost the state about $425 million a year in lost revenue. Local governments would see their annual income drop by about $350 million, Nixon has said.

During an appearance before the St. Louis Regional Chamber, the governor thanked members -- many of whom are political donors to both parties -- for backing most of his vetoes. That may also have been a hint for them to lobby legislators to let the vetoes stand.

Legislative leaders are still trying to figure out whether they have to vote on each budget line-item veto separately or if the budget cuts could be addressed in blocs in each affected bill. Tackling the items one at a time could take days.

Late Friday,  Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey sent a formal request to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster,  asking for a legal analysis of how those line-item budget vetoes will have to be handled.

In the Senate: Gun-rights and student transfer bills

The vetoed bill most likely to be affected by Ferguson fallout appears to be SB 656, which would allow the open carrying of firearms. It also would:

  • allow school districts to authorize some personnel, including teachers, to carry guns,
  • lower the minimum age to 19 for Missourians to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons,
  • reduce the qualification requirements for such a permit.

Some law enforcement officials have raised questions about a provision that appears to bar police from disarming a person, with or without a permit, unless he was being arrested.
The gun bill, like two-thirds of the 33 vetoed measures, originated in the Missouri Senate. That means any override attempts of those 22 vetoed bills must begin in the Senate.

The vetoed Senate bills also include the so-called “student transfer bill,’’ SB 493, which sought to resolve the controversy and costly fallout from the transfers of hundreds of students from two unaccredited school districts – Normandy and Riverview Gardens – to other districts in St. Louis and St. Charles counties.

Although that bill garnered a veto-proof majority in the Senate when it first passed, its support in the state House was well below the 109 votes needed for an override.

Nixon particularly objected to the bill’s provision to allow students to transfer to private schools, with their tuition subsidized.

House may focus first on abortion

Before the veto session begins, Speaker Jones is planning a series of stops around the state to promote vetoed bills that he supports – in particular, the bill lengthening the state’s waiting period before a woman can obtain an abortion.

Jones, who plans to run for statewide office in 2016, also is campaigning hard for a vetoed bill to provide tax breaks for contributions to pregnancy resource centers, generally run by groups that oppose abortion.

“These are common-sense measures meant to protect life, and we will pass these measures into law over the governor's veto. Missouri is a strong pro-child, pro-life state, and by overriding these bills we will show that protecting the sanctity of life is of the utmost importance to us," said Speaker Jones.

Jones is confident that the Missouri House will generate veto-proof majorities for both abortion-related bills.

Backers of the 72-hour waiting period say it would provide women with more time to think about ending a pregnancy. Opponents say it demeans women and note that the bill contains no exceptions for rape or incest.

Nixon focused on the lack of exceptions in his veto. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is among those who also have publicly criticized the bill and backed Nixon’s veto. Supporters and backers of the bill are expected to pack the state Capitol during the veto session.

Legislators also may take up a vetoed bill aimed at making it easier for farmers to raise and fence in deer, in some cases for hunters to shoot.  The bill seeks to remove the state Department of Conservation’s jurisdiction over such practices and put the state Department of Agriculture in charge.  Caleb Jones said farmers are balking at the conservation department's stricter requirements.

Among other things, the bill would classify deer as livestock.

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