Veto session adventures

Posted September 5, 2013 at 12:33 pm

by Phill Brooks

Editor’s note: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

Veto sessions of Missouri’s General Assembly have struck me more as grand political theater rather than substantive public policy debates on complicated state issues.

The first successful veto override I covered was Gov. Kit Bond’s veto of a bill involving licensing of nurses. In his 1976 veto message, Bond cited a provision expanding the power of the nurses’ licensing board to hold closed meetings.

When the bill went through the legislature, it did not seem like a big deal. But when the Republican governor vetoed the measure, the leadership of the Democratic-controlled legislature made it a big deal.

The Senate’s president pro tem, Bill Cason, planned to run for governor that year. And it was pretty clear to me that overriding a governor’s veto for the first time in more than a century was seen as a way to create a political embarrassment for Bond.

Cason, by the way, lost the Democratic primary. So he never faced Bond.

While Bond’s veto override involved a pretty insignificant measure, that’s not been the case for the subsequent overrides that governors have suffered at the hands of lawmakers.

All six bills involved issues with major political undercurrents (not counting a budget-item veto that was overridden in 1980).

All six bill vetoes came from Democratic governors. But they were issues that deeply split Democrats, which allowed the more unified Republicans to build the two-thirds majority required for an override by winning over Democratic legislators willing to stand up to their fellow Democrat’s veto. It even happened when Democrats controlled the legislature in 1999.

Three of the bills involved abortion and contraception issues with overrides in 1999, 2003 and 2012. The issue of abortion deeply divides the legislature’s Democratic caucus. The two other bills overridden in 2003 involved firearms. One was to allow concealed weapons, the other to stop a St. Louis lawsuit effort against the firearms industry.

The issue of gun rights enjoys strong support among some Democrats, particularly those from rural areas. Besides, in some Democratic districts it would be political suicide to take a stance against firearms.

In some ways, the political undercurrents of this year’s firearms veto override effort mirrors those of 2003.

Missouri 2011’s veto override was all politics. It was the congressional redistricting bill that eliminated the district of Democrat Russ Carnahan.

Like abortion and guns, Republicans were able to cleave off just enough Democrats to get the two-thirds vote. They did it by protecting the districts of Missouri’s two black Democratic members of Congress.

Overrides have been rare for much of Missouri’s history because for many years the legislature had no way to consider many of the governor’s vetoes.

Originally, there was just one regular session during the General Assembly’s two-year term. Vetoes came after the session had adjourned. So the legislature would not return to take up vetoes unless the governor called a special session.

That changed in the early 1970s with annual sessions along with a short veto session a few months after each year’s regular session has adjourned.

Another factor making overrides rare involves the power of the governor. Other than issues like guns and abortion that can split Democrats, there is tremendous internal pressure on members of the governor’s party to stand by their leader.

St. Louis House member Jamilah Nasheed, now a state senator, discovered that in 2011 when there was a call for her to be kicked out of the House Democratic caucus because of her vote to override the redistricting veto.

The governor has significant influence over the opposition party as well. There are quite a few perks and other rewards the governor can bestow.

He also enjoys a far more visible public platform than legislators to rally public support. While lawmakers are back home working at their jobs after the legislative session, the governor can spend as much time as he wants to work at winning over various interests, companies, associations and local officials to pressure their legislators to sustain the governor’s veto.

In addition, the governor can travel the state at government expense to campaign for his veto, as Gov. Jay Nixon has been doing for much of the summer on his veto of the legislature’s tax-cut bill.

No legislator, not even a legislative leader, enjoys guaranteed access to a state-owned airplane or Highway Patrol drivers. Legislators can only dream of the army of staff the governor can call upon to help prepare for his public events including speech writers, event handlers and publicists.

When the governor comes to the town of a legislator planning to vote against the governor, it can generate pressure — particularly if the governor brings in local community leaders like Nixon has been doing with school officials.

But this year, there has been one major difference that I’ve never seen in my decades covering this process. It’s $2.4 million contributed by one man, Rex Sinquefield, to mount a statewide campaign with TV commercials against the tax-cut veto.

It’s raised the politics of vetoes and veto override efforts to a whole new level and, maybe, helped level the playing field.

Editor’s note:Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.