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Missouri Governor Vetoes Record Number of Bills

Gov. Jay Nixon used his veto pen to set a personal record this year following a legislative session marred by showdowns over tax cuts, school choice and revenue estimates.

By Alex Stuckey

Gov. Jay Nixon used his veto pen to set a personal record this year following a legislative session marred by showdowns over tax cuts, school choice and revenue estimates.

Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed 33 bills -- the most in a single year since he took office in 2009. His total is just two short of the most vetoes of any Missouri governor after a single legislative session, set by former Gov. John Dalton, a Democrat, in 1961.

Nixon also line-item vetoed about 120 items in the budget for fiscal year 2015, which began July 1.

Lawmakers are allowed a final say on the vetoed bills. The Republican-led Legislature will return to the Capitol in September for a chance to override him. Each chamber needs a two-thirds vote to do so.

Republicans control 108 of the 163 House seats and 23 of the 34 Senate seats, making them veto-proof in the Senate but one short in the House.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, found some of Nixon's vetoes surprising but said lawmakers have not yet talked about how to approach the large number.

"Nixon's got his own opinions," Richard said, adding that lawmakers would take the bills "one at a time."

Nixon's high tally of vetoes follows a session fraught with political turmoil.

Legislators already have overridden Nixon's veto of a $620 million tax cut, ignored his call for Medicaid expansion and demanded students in unaccredited districts have the option to transfer to private, nonreligious schools. Then, they passed a bevy of tax breaks for restaurants, dry cleaners and power companies, to name a few, which drew Nixon's derision.

The Legislature also fought with Nixon over revenue growth projections, holding a more conservative figure than the governor for both last fiscal year and the current one. It turns out both sides were wrong for the fiscal year that ended June 30, as revenue dipped 1 percent -- $79.4 million -- and put more pressure on budget issues.

After the session ended, Nixon issued a flurry of vetoes of high-priority Republican bills, such as the school transfer bill and a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. He also axed the 10 tax break bills and vetoed $144.6 million of general revenue from the current fiscal year's budget.

He withheld an additional $641.6 million from the budget, including about $144 million in education funding that he says will be restored if the Legislature sustains his vetoes of the 10 tax break bills.

Nixon's increasingly bitter battles with Republicans show a turn toward the more liberal stance of the national Democratic Party and may signal a desire in the governor for higher office, said David Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"He could be setting the stage to play a role in the presidential campaign next election," Robertson said.

Nixon has dodged questions about his next political move, but he told Politico at a National Governors Association meeting this weekend the Democratic field of presidential hopefuls would benefit from a "voice in the heartland."

Despite the vetoes, Nixon did approve a number of bills passed by the Legislature this past session.

He signed a bill limiting patients' out-of-pocket costs for cancer-fighting pills to $75 a month after meeting their deductible. He also signed legislation requiring public universities to establish performance criteria -- used to determine the amount of extra money an institution would receive when the state can increase college funding -- and a bill lifting the ban on food stamps for drug felons, if they meet certain conditions.

Additionally, he signed a bill requiring the state to evaluate and adopt new standards and assessments to track student performance.

The governor allowed two other measures -- the first criminal code overhaul in decades and a bill allowing casinos to extend lines of credit to patrons if they have at least $10,000 and are not intoxicated -- to become law without his signature.

Now that all the bills are off the governor's desk, lawmakers are gearing up to consider a slew of veto override votes.

Lawmakers spent months developing what they considered a fix to the school transfer law, which had required unaccredited districts to pay for the tuition and transportation costs for students to transfer to better schools. But the addition of a private, nonreligious transfer option was a no-go for Nixon, who all but threatened a veto before the measure even landed on his desk.

Bill sponsor Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, made it clear he would attempt an override in the Senate, where the measure passed with bipartisan support 28-3, more than enough for an override. But it gets tricky in the House, where the bill passed 89-66 -- 20 votes short.

Pearce said some lawmakers may change their votes given the political climate since May.

"I think Nixon vetoing a record number of bills also sends a political signal that the governor is not interested in supporting a lot of the legislation," Pearce said.

Legislators might have more luck overriding Nixon's vetoes of the 10 tax break bills, commonly referred to as "Friday Favors" by the Nixon administration. The bills would provide tax breaks to data storage centers, power companies, fitness centers, restaurants and farmers markets, among others, which supporters say will help boost the economy and create jobs.

Nixon, however, says the bills would drop state and local revenue by $776 million each year, with St. Louis' losing potential at about $20 million. Since May, the governor has toured the state denouncing the tax breaks and their potential impact.

Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override Nixon's vetoes on eight of the 10 bills. The bills providing tax breaks for data storage centers and personal seat licenses at stadiums were short in the House.

An override of a 72-hour waiting period for an abortion might not be simple. The measure's lack of an exception for victims of rape and incest drew criticism from Nixon, because it was "wholly insensitive to women who find themselves in horrific circumstances."

Bill handler Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, immediately responded in a statement with a vow to override because abortion "is an irreversible and permanent decision, and taking the time to think about the consequences is not unreasonable or a burden."

The House passed the bill 111-39 -- enough to override -- but the Senate's party line vote of 22-9 was one short of the 23 needed to override. Sen. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, was absent for the vote.

Nixon vetoed 29 bills last year, 14 bills in both 2012 and 2011, five in 2010 and 23 in 2009 -- his first year in office.

(c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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