Analysis: Defections played role in veto overrides

Sunday, September 15, 2013 | 7:32 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Fears of lost jobs and the possible closing of the Doe Run Co. prompted Missouri's Republican-dominated General Assembly to create a shield against large-dollar lawsuit judgments. Yet, overriding Gov. Jay Nixon's veto took willing Democrats to supplant defecting Republicans — not the hammer of a veto-proof GOP supermajority.

That pattern emerged with varying degrees during this past week's veto override session. Missouri Republicans control two-thirds of the House and Senate and theoretically can overcome a veto on the strength of their own numbers. But there were times when the ballyhooed supermajority still needed Democratic votes to offset wayward Republicans — especially in the House.

The Missouri legislature overrode Nixon's vetoes 10 times this past week. Just three passed with enough Republican support to ensure an override, but each of those also picked up at least some support from Democrats. Five vetoes were overridden by the bare minimum in either the House or Senate. House Republicans control 109 seats, which is the number needed for an override, and the Senate's 24 Republicans create a one-vote cushion.

For the Doe Run legislation, the override passed with 10 Democratic supporters and a one-vote cushion in the House as nine Republicans did not support the override. It cleared the Senate with three extra votes, as two Republicans who voted "no" were offset by four Democrats voting "yes."

Doe Run mines and smelts ore and recycles lead for new uses at eastern Missouri facilities that employee about 1,600 people. The company is facing numerous lawsuits and has said a costly jury judgment could drive it out of business. The legislation prohibits punitive damages related to mining sites that stopped operating before 1975 and for which the owners are making "good faith efforts to remediate such sites." If there are not such efforts, punitive damages will be capped at $2.5 million.

Several House Democrats also were substitutes for Republican "no" votes on legislation attempting to nullify some federal gun laws. The gun bill passed the House with 109 votes and was one vote short in the Senate, where the top two Republicans leaders voted to sustain Nixon's veto.

Various House Republicans broke away on bills that were overridden or sustained in tight votes, but the most prominent break was for a tax-cutting bill that fell well short of an override with no Democrats offsetting the loss of 15 Republicans.

The wrangling over this year's veto overrides made clear that the perfect party cohesiveness needed for Republicans to turn a House supermajority into an active veto-proof majority is not a certainty. But there also is no guarantee that House Democrats can hold their members in line long enough to capitalize on any GOP fractures.

House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel said his members can vote based upon their districts.

"We don't threaten our people. We don't twist their arms," said Hummel, D-St. Louis. "We try to keep our members informed and hope that they vote the right way. But at the end of the day, they have to vote their district, and we are not in the habit of punishing our members."

It might not count as punishment, but House Speaker Tim Jones said there could be "a bit of tough love" and "heart-to-heart" conversations with some Republican lawmakers. He said going too far risks weakening the veto-proof-majority hammer for the 2014 session.

"If I want to pass another tax cut bill or a labor reform bill or a tort reform bill, I will need 109 people potentially. If I don't maintain the trust and cooperation and support of my caucus, then you can just write off any veto override right now," said Jones, R-Eureka.

Among the Republicans that voted against an override was state Rep. Jay Barnes, an attorney who represents Jefferson City. He supported overriding the tax cut but voted against the gun legislation, the Doe Run measure and several others. That included a bill that ended up two votes short of an override and another that lost by a single vote.

Barnes said he considers his conscience and his constituents and that if there is an issue that would make the legislation a bad law, he votes against it.

"There is nothing Republican or conservative about flouting the constitution or immunizing the behavior of people who harm others," he said.

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