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Nixon vetoes Missouri public defender legislation

Monday, July 13, 2009 | 6:16 p.m. CDT; updated 11:43 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 11, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation intended to lighten the caseloads of Missouri's public defenders as he cleared his desk Monday of bills passed during the 2009 session.

Nixon also vetoed various bills that he said lacked consumer protections but signed a measure allowing electric companies to charge Missouri customers for energy-savings initiatives.

Monday's vetoes raised the Democratic governor's total to 23, or almost one out of every six non-budgetary measures passed by the Republican-led Legislature this year.

The public defender legislation was among the most prominent ones spiked. Missouri faces a backlog of cases in which criminal defendants cannot afford private lawyers and thus are relying on state aid.

Earlier this year, a state appeals court struck down a Public Defender Commission rule that set a maximum caseload and allowed local offices to turn away defendants charged with lesser offenses such as traffic violations or misdemeanors.

Legislators then gave bipartisan approval to a bill that would have freed public defenders from having to represent people when prosecutors are not seeking jail time. It also would have specifically authorized the commission to create caseload limits and allowed courts to place defendants on waiting lists when those limits were reached.

In a written message to lawmakers, Nixon said he vetoed the legislation because the caseload limits and waiting lists could have shifted more work to courts and prosecutors and burdened both criminal defendants and victims. But Nixon said he was committed to finding more resources to help the criminal justice system work more efficiently.

Public defender system director J. Marty Robinson said the veto was disappointing because the bill would have given public defenders "immediate relief from the pressure of too many cases." But Robinson said he was excited by Nixon's pledge to find a solution.

Nixon cited a lack of consumer protections in vetoing several bills, including measures affecting the milk industry, debt settlement companies and renters whose homes are destroyed in natural disasters.

He vetoed a bill creating the crime of assaulting a mass transit system employee because he said it could have weakened an existing law against assaulting law officers by adding a requirement that they be on duty or in their official vehicles.

Nixon also vetoed a bill that would have loosened Missouri's bingo regulations and eliminated taxes on bingo cards. The state can't afford a $2.2 million hit to its education funds, he said.

Nixon signed legislation expanding state regulation of private jails but attached a note describing their existence as "horrific public policy" and suggested they should be banned.

Another bill signed by Nixon requires students to stay in school longer before being allowed to drop out, lets school districts adopt four-day school weeks and establishes a voluntary merit pay system for teachers in St. Louis.

Earlier Monday, Nixon held public ceremonies in St. Joseph and Kansas City to sign legislation allowing utilities to recoup costs from consumers for programs that reduce demand for electricity.

Utility officials and some consumer advocates say the new law ultimately should cost people less money. That's because the energy-savings programs are intended to prevent or delay the need for new power plants that would be more costly for customers to finance.

The new law applies to Missouri's three publicly traded utilities — AmerenUE, Kansas City Power & Light and The Empire District Electric Co. — which serve nearly three-quarters of the state's population.


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