by Mark Hughes

Lawmakers have headed back to their districts, but the 2016 session of the Missouri General Assembly is not yet over. Not quite. There are still several days and a bit of work to be done before most of the bills passed this year can become law.

Since at least the Missouri Constitution of 1875, no bill can become law in Missouri until it is signed by the presiding officer of the Senate and the speaker of the House.

In Missouri’s current constitution, adopted in 1945, this provision is contained in Article III, which involves the General Assembly. In November 1988, voters adopted an amendment equalizing the lengths of annual legislative sessions, The amendment required all bills still on the calendar after 6 p.m. on the first Friday following the second Monday in May to be tabled. The amendment further directs that the session shall adjourn at midnight on May 30. The intervening two weeks is given over to the signing of bills — and only those bills that were passed in the preceding session.

Once signed, the bills will be forwarded to the governor, who will have 45 days to sign the bills, veto the bills or allow them to become law without his signature.

While the constitution and related statutes define that bills must be signed by legislative leaders, it took a Missouri Supreme Court case to define what happens when one of the leaders refuses to sign a bill — thereby unsettling a careful balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Outside the House chamber in the third-floor Capitol rotunda, hangs an impressive oil portrait of House Speaker Roy Hamlin, D-Marion. Speaker Hamlin gets a bigger portrait than most, perhaps because he was the last Democrat speaker before a brief Republican takeover in 1950, and the first Democrat speaker beginning nearly a half century of House control by that party beginning in 1955.

In April 1955, SB 351 was introduced to allow voters to enact a one-mill per cigarette tax for public education in a special election to be held in October. It should be noted that ten mills equals one cent, so this would have been a two-cent tax on a pack of 20 smokes.

Apparently Speaker Hamlin didn’t support the measure, but a majority of the House did. After the bill passed the Senate and was sent to the House, Hamlin assigned it not to a committee on taxation, but to a committee on governmental affairs. That committee chairman, Joseph Tanner, D-Jackson, proceeded to lock the original copy of the bill in his office filing cabinet, and then take off for Kansas, where he stayed until the end of the session.

A majority of the House, meanwhile, voted to relieve the committee of the bill, but couldn’t locate it. A copy was drafted, placed on the calendar and passed. After the session had ended, Hamlin refused to sign it, noting instead that it hadn’t been read on three separate days, and was not the original bill, which was still being held by the committee chairman.

Because it was a referendum, the bill did not go to the governor for signature, but to the secretary of state who placed it on the ballot where it was adopted by voters.

A St. Louis seller of cigarettes challenged the tax as unconstitutional, because the bill had not been signed by the speaker.

In Brown v. Morris, 1956, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that legislative leaders’ signatures were simply a directive. Hamlin’s refusal to sign was a “procedural defect” corrected when voters adopted the tax. The court noted that failing to stop Hamlin’s attempt would have allowed him to make himself more powerful than the governor, and the court was having none of that.

Legislative leaders this year had until midnight, May 30 — when the 2016 session really ended — to sign bills. But they can’t veto them. Only the governor gets to do that.