Democrats and Republicans are spending this weekend picking through the charred rubble of Missouri’s summerlong tax cut battle, looking for clues about its meaning for the state, and the nation.
And, like bickering crime scene investigators on TV, they’re reaching quite different conclusions.
Democrats say Gov. Jay Nixon’s successful three-month crusade against the $700 million tax cut gave their party a solid victory, providing a template for resisting tax cut fever in other Republican-led states.
Republicans see nothing of the sort.
The failure to override Nixon’s tax cut veto, they said, was the result of a unique set of circumstances — a poorly drafted bill, a disorganized message, a popular governor with an airplane. They think those hurdles will be easily overcome next year when lawmakers reconvene and take up a new tax cut bill.
“He will be overridden in January and February when they come back,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a key public figure in tax debates across the country, including Missouri’s debate.
Indeed, as hundreds of Republicans activists from nine Midwestern states gathered for a weekend strategy conference in Kansas City, the outline of the party’s next steps was falling into place:
• The tax cut measure will be rewritten to take out confusing language on prescription drugs, textbooks and other drafting errors.
• Republicans will propose limits on a governor’s ability to withhold appropriated funds. Several said Nixon’s decision to hold back $400 million in state spending before the veto vote was a key factor in the tax cut defeat, and possibly illegal.
• Recalcitrant GOP lawmakers who provided Nixon’s veto-sustaining margin will be punished.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to primary all 15 Republicans,” said Bev Randles, chairwoman of the conservative Missouri Club for Growth, “but some of the Republicans who voted against this bill will face a primary. I’m sure of it.”
For his part, Nixon pulled back, trying hard in the days after the vote to avoid the appearance of taking a victory lap. Sustaining his tax cut veto, he said this week, was not a partisan victory.
“My hope is this is a turning point where we’ll focus on the issues that really matter,” he told reporters after the session.
But others — even some Republicans — agreed Nixon’s political stock rose dramatically after the veto was sustained. His all-summer push against the bill, often marked by two or three campaign-style appearances a day, easily trumped a well-financed but disorganized GOP response, they said.
A last-minute front-page story in The New York Times, pointing out Nixon’s efforts, boosted his national stature as well.
“It helps him,” said Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist who attended the GOP party conference here. “He picked the right fight. It wasn’t a sure thing. It’s a big win for him.”
Nixon’s national profile may worry some Republicans. During an interview Friday, Norquist twice compared him withRichard
Nixon, the disgraced former president.
How or whether Jay Nixon wants to exploit his high-visibility win isn’t known. For months he has resisted discussion of any future political ambitions beyond the governor’s job, which ends for him in January 2017.
Also undecided is whether Nixon’s veto-sustaining strategy can be exported to other states where tax cuts are a major issue.
Democrats think it can. Republicans, not so much.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback — who convinced his legislature to enact the sweeping tax reductions that figured so heavily in Missouri’s debate — said Friday that he saw no larger national implications in Missouri’s anti-tax cut vote.
“A two-thirds vote (to override a veto) is a high hurdle,” he said. Tax cuts “clearly had a strong, solid majority in Missouri. But each state has to make its own decision.”
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, also a Republican, said Missouri’s decision will have little impact in her state as it considers tax cuts similar to those in Kansas.
But Roy Temple, the Missouri Democratic Party chairman, said Nixon’s efforts will provide a blueprint for his party as it talks to voters about spending and tax issues in other Republican states.
“There are fights that are similar to this in many places,” he said. “There is a formula here that can be applied, which is reach out to reasonable Republicans and then inform the public about the consequences.”
Most Missouri Republicans resisted that view. Nixon, they pointed out, lost 10 veto overrides, a record.
They blamed their losses — on taxes and a controversial gun measure — on weakness in their own ranks, not Nixon’s efforts.
St. Louis conservative radio host Dana Loesch used Twitter to express her outrage over the tax cut vote, calling the 15 Republicans who upheld the tax cut veto “worthless” and vowing to support primary challengers next year.
Appearing on Loesch’s show Thursday, House Speaker Tim Jones of Eureka didn’t push back on the idea of unseating his fellow Republican caucus members. Instead, he said any punishment would be left to voters.
“Don’t forget, every single representative is up for re-election next year,” he said.
Potential Republican targets say they aren’t overly worried.
Rep. Paul Fitzwater, a Potosi Republican, supported the tax cut in April but voted against an override.
“I represent more than just Republicans in my district,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Am I worried about a primary? There’s been some threats. I’m a grown man. No one said it was going to be easy.”
GOP strategists said the timing of next year’s elections will work in their favor as well.
Assuming a new tax package passes in 2014 — and Nixon exercises his veto again — the next override would come in September of that year, after the primary but before lawmakers face the general election.
Voter pressure could yield a different result, Republicans predicted.
Some Republicans have quietly suggested a possible deal next January. Tax cuts, they said, might be linked with expanding Medicaid in Missouri, a Nixon goal that fell far short this legislative session.
But Republicans in Kansas City scoffed at the idea. Expanding Medicaid remains deeply unpopular among most GOP lawmakers in the state, they said.
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, complained that Republicans didn’t allow his party to have a seat at the table this year during the tax policy debate.
One option Hummel suggested would be to pair tax cuts with reforms to the state’s tax credit system. Last year, tax credits, most aimed at businesses, cost Missouri more than $620 million. Nearly half of the money went to rehab historic buildings and develop low-income housing.
“We’re not opposed to tax relief,” Hummel said. “But it has to benefit the middle class and working families, not just the wealthiest Missourians.”