Veto-proof Missouri General Assembly means Democrats will struggle

Republicans have dominated the Missouri General Assembly for more than a decade. But for the last four years, the threat of a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, helped balance the scales.

When bills passed that the governor didn’t like, he pulled out the veto pen. Only twice was he overturned. At times, all he had to do was hint at a veto to stop legislation in its tracks or force lawmakers to make changes.

That could be a thing of the past.

And the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry couldn’t be more pleased.

Missouri Republicans pulled off a historic feat on Election Day, amassing a two-thirds supermajority in both legislative chambers, enough to override any gubernatorial veto.

Just one day after voters got their say at the ballot box, House Speaker Tim Jones explained the new dynamic, as he saw it.

“The governor will need to understand the importance of true, actual negotiation during the legislative process,” Jones, a Eureka Republican, said in prepared remarks Wednesday. “The checkmate that he possesses in the form of a veto is now equaled by the overwhelming numbers that we have in the House and Senate.”

He was joined by House Majority Leader John Diehl, who spoke with bravado Tuesday.

“We’re going to take advantage of our new numbers,” the St. Louis area Republican said. “Voters sent a pretty clear message that the legislature is going to have a significant say over what happens in this state over the next couple of years.”

Nixon scoffed at the idea that he would have to change the way he has worked with the legislature, saying he has always focused on working across the political aisle. He added that he has a political mandate of his own as the first Missouri governor to win re-election since Mel Carnahan in 1996.

And his victory wasn’t close. He cruised past his Republican opponent by more than 300,000 votes.

“The thing about being governor is that every politician that you see, you can start the discussion by saying all of your constituents are my constituents,” Nixon said. “I am not dividing the state and leaving out certain segments.”

Both Jones and the new Senate president pro tem, Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, spoke of working with Nixon and bipartisanship. Still, the key dynamic may not be between the administration and lawmakers, or Republicans and Democrats, but within the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

“Having a good working relationship with the House is going to be critical,” Dempsey said, later adding: “I’m not as concerned about where the governor is today.”

Republicans picked up four seats in the Missouri House, giving them a 110-53 majority. While they lost two seats in the Missouri Senate, the party held on to its supermajority and controls 24 of the chamber’s 34 seats.

The new legislative majorities set the stage for many bills that Nixon has opposed, or killed, to get a new life. A fair share of those bills can be found on the agenda of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, including:

• Making it more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers.

• Moving occupational diseases — such as those caused by on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins — out of civil courts and into the workers’ compensation system.

• Eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment in the state’s minimum wage.

• Reinstating caps on the amount a person can be awarded for pain and suffering in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Nixon has vetoed the workplace discrimination measure twice, arguing that it would roll back “decades of progress on civil rights.” This year he vetoed the workers’ compensation overhaul because he said it “weakens the important workplace protections that are part of our laws and regulations.”

When it became clear Republicans had won a supermajority in the House, the chamber celebrated. It also pointed out that its political action committee helped elect many of those Republicans.

“Coming into the 2013 legislative session with a veto-proof majority gives us leverage we need to pass important reform into law,” said Missouri chamber president and CEO Daniel Mehan.

While Dempsey expressed support for many of the chamber’s priorities, he said the agenda for the coming session has yet to be fully determined.

Nixon’s other high-profile veto was of a bill requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote. The issue has been a priority for Missouri Republicans since 2006, when the state Supreme Court struck down a voter ID law that it said was a “heavy and substantial burden on Missourians’ free exercise of the right of suffrage.”

The new Republican majorities also face the choice of whether Missouri should expand the Medicaid health care program for the poor, as called for by the federal health care law.

Both Jones and Dempsey immediately closed the door on the idea.

“I would say, from talking to members, that would be highly unlikely,” Dempsey said.

But even with a huge majority, progress has not always come easy for Republican legislative leaders.

As House speaker, Steve Tilley, who resigned in August to become a lobbyist before his final term ended, made education reform a priority of the 2012 legislative session. However, bills eliminating teacher tenure, basing teacher pay on student achievement and offering tax credit vouchers to parents to send children to private schools all failed to clear the House, thanks to bipartisan opposition.

Jones said education will again move to the forefront of the Republican agenda in 2013.

Twice in four years have Republicans with massive majorities been able to muster the votes to override vetoes: once on the congressional redistricting maps, and again this year on a bill allowing employers to refuse to provide health insurance coverage for birth control.

“The reality is we still have the governor’s office and he can still veto things,” said Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat. “The question will be whether or not there are issues that a majority of folks will want to override. We’re a diverse state, and sometimes you can override on party lines and sometimes you can’t.”

Another area where Democrats are optimistic is labor law. The chamber has also pushed for changes to Missouri labor law, most notably the establishment of a right-to-work law that would outlaw contracts that make union dues a condition of employment.

But opposition to the idea has not come solely from Democrats, said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel of St. Louis. Many Republicans have also helped kill right-to-work and other anti-labor bills over the years, he said.

“Could something like that pass out of the House? Absolutely,” said Hummel, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. “Could it pass out of the Senate? I’m not so sure. If it came down to overriding the governor, there are enough pro-labor Republicans to block that.”

Steve Glorioso, a longtime Democratic political consultant, said his party has lost so many seats that it “may not be able to recapture the legislature for a generation.”

“But it doesn’t make Gov. Nixon completely impotent,” Glorioso said. “It certainly gives Republicans more leverage, but they should also understand that the public tends to punish ideologues and reward those who are willing to compromise.”

On that much, veteran Republican strategist Jeff Roe agrees.

“The governor has not been marginalized,” Roe said. “It will force him to work with Republican legislators more closely instead of just vetoing things.”

Nixon, who ran a re-election campaign that emphasized bipartisanship, said the next two years won’t be much different from the previous four.

“The folks that use partisan differences as an excuse, that seems small to me,” he said.