Government & Politics

In a low-profile year, the stakes of this year’s Missouri election are high

Gov. Jay Nixon
Gov. Jay Nixon The Associated Press

His name won’t appear on the ballot, but Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has a lot riding on the outcome of November’s election.

In the legislature, Nixon’s fellow Democrats hope they can shrink the Republican supermajority that managed to override a historic number of the governor’s vetoes over the last two years. Further down the ballot, voters will decide whether to sign off on a GOP-backed amendment to Missouri’s constitution limiting the governor’s budget authority.

There aren’t any high-profile statewide campaigns to capture voters’ attention and drive them to the polls. But the outcome of the Nov. 4 election could go a long way toward shaping not just Nixon’s final two years as governor, but the state’s politics for years to come.

Debates over tax policy, health care, business regulations and a whole host of hot-button social issues are likely to be decided by the outcome of legislative elections across the state. And the arcane but critical constitutional change in the budget process could tilt political power further away from the governor and toward the legislature.

“The stakes are huge,” said Rep. John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat.

And Republicans are confident — with reason.

“The political environment is good for Republicans this year,” said House Speaker-elect John Diehl, a Republican from the St. Louis area.

The GOP currently controls 110 of the 163 seats in the Missouri House and 23 of 34 in the Senate. It also has candidates facing no opponents in 51 House races and half the Senate races. As of last month, the House Republican Campaign Committee had $1.2 million cash on hand. The Missouri Senate Campaign Committee, which supports Republicans, had $348,942.

“We have a very unselfish caucus,” said Rep. Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican. “Every member is working together and contributing to elect good people to the House.”

Democrats have only 24 candidates who face no opponent in the House. Only one of their candidates is unopposed for the Senate. The Missouri Democratic Party last month had $700,000 in the bank to support candidates in both chambers.

While the party is trailing the Republicans in fundraising, the gap isn’t nearly as wide as it has been in recent elections, thanks to cash infusions from statewide Democratic politicians. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill has given the party $390,000 to spend on legislative races. Attorney General Chris Koster has chipped in $200,000 as part of a four-year pledge to donate $400,000. Missouri Treasurer Clint Zweifel gave the Democratic Party $10,000 in July.

Nixon, who has been criticized in the past by Democrats for not getting more involved in legislative elections, has not made a similar financial commitment to his party. However, last month he held campaign events for several Democratic candidates in the St. Louis area.

“Our statewide elected officials are sick and tired of having to explain what the hell is going on with the radical agenda coming out of Jefferson City,” Rizzo said. “They are fed up.”

Democrats have virtually no hope of regaining the majority in either chamber this year. But they could pick up enough seats, Rizzo said, to have a voice in the process.

“The difference between 109 seats and 104 is all the difference in the world,” he said. “With a Democratic governor who can use the veto, that will change everything.”

Republicans held 106 seats in 2012, three shy of a veto-proof majority. They managed to override one of the governor’s vetoes that year.

With 110 seats last month, the governor saw 57 of his vetoes overridden, including a bill tripling the waiting period to have an abortion and another voiding local bans on the open carry of firearms.

Preserving a supermajority will give Republicans much more leverage when negotiating with the governor, Diehl said. But even if his party falls short, he said, the most recent veto session proves the GOP can count on Democrats to help enact their legislative agenda.

“Every single override vote we did this year had support of Democrats,” he said. “In some cases, half their caucus.”

If voters approve the GOP-backed constitutional amendment, the governor’s hand in negotiations with the legislature may be weakened even further.

The General Assembly has the constitutional duty to craft the state’s budget. The governor has the ability to veto specific spending items.

But the constitution also gives governors the authority to withhold spending if there is a shortfall in state revenue. The governor can restore the money to the budget if the state’s financial situation improves, and lawmakers have no authority to override the withholding of funds.

The proposed constitutional amendment would change that, giving lawmakers the opportunity to override the governor’s decision with a two-thirds majority vote.

Proponents point to last year’s battle over an $800 million tax cut proposal.

Nixon vetoed the tax bill, then withheld $400 million in funding for education, building projects and other government services out of concern legislators might override that veto.

When the override effort failed, he eventually released all the money. Republicans cried foul.

“This is about checks and balances,” Richardson said. “We’ve seen a pattern of this governor abusing his constitutional authority, and we’re trying to create some legislative oversight.”

Nixon has panned the amendment, arguing that his budget powers are necessary tools that have been wielded by Republican and Democrat governors to maintain the state’s fiscal discipline.

Governors use the withhold authority to “balance the state budget and prevent government from spending beyond its means,” said Scott Holste, Nixon’s press secretary. “The governor has made clear that amending the constitution to weaken Missouri’s strong safeguards against overspending by the legislature is fiscally irresponsible.”

If the amendment passes, it will “tilt the balance of power in the legislature’s favor, although it will take time for judicial decisions to determine the extent it does so,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. “This measure sounds good to Republicans now. If it passes, they may come to regret it when circumstances change.”

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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