Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL164.PRB - Challenging the legislature«MDNM»
Missouri's Republican legislature has laid the groundwork for a classic confrontation with the Democratic governor.
This year, the GOP-dominating legislature sent Gov. Jay Nixon bills he normally would veto including unemployment compensation cuts, welfare cuts and restrictions to his budget powers.
They sent the entire operating budget to Nixon early enough that they can take their veto override votes before the session ends rather than waiting until the fall.
But before he acts, Nixon might want to consider the recent history of governors who chose to challenge the legislature.
It's not been a pretty history for governors.
The most painful for a governor that I've covered involved the tax-increase efforts of Gov. Bob Holden.
The Democratic governor suffered a series of stunning defeats that contributed to being a one-term governor.
Holden challenged the new Republican legislative majority with a budget based on a massive tax increase.
His plan went nowhere. The tax hike idea was ignored and the budget scaled down to fit within existing revenues.
The education and welfare bills of the budget promptly was vetoed by Holden who called lawmakers into a special session to reconsider.
The legislature refused to budge, sending the governor identical versions of what Holden had just vetoed.
He backed off a bit signing the welfare budgets. But he again vetoed the education budget bills.
But the legislature stood firm, passing the same education budgets. Just 11 days after his last vetoes, Holden completely caved and signed the bills.
Seven months later, he decisively lost the Democratic primary for re-election as governor to Claire McCaskill.
Another loser in challenging the legislature was Gov. Warren Hearnes.
He was able to force through a massive income tax increase, but a petition campaign led by the Senate's top leader succeeded in getting it on the ballot where it was rejected by Missouri voters.
Hearnes simply called lawmakers back into session. The state's budget crisis was so severe lawmakers had no choice but to overturn the voters' rejection and pass the tax increase again.
Hearnes won that battle. The legislature had no choice given the budget crisis. But Hearnes lost the long-term political war.
He never again won public office. His final years in office were hampered by the bad blood and bitterness that arose among conservative legislators for being forced to pass a tax increase against the public's wishes.
Even members of his own party seemed to take delight in publicly ridiculing their governor.
Democrat Joe Teasdale came in as an outsider to state government and challenged fellow Democrats who controlled the legislature. Teasdale failed miserably. Little got passed and, like Holden, he lost re-election.
That Missouri history is quite different than recent battles between Congress and the president.
Harry Truman won election to a second term as president with a campaign against a "do-nothing" Congress.
Decades later, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues lost decisively when they forced a shutdown of much of the U.S. government in a budget standoff with Bill Clinton.
More recently, Barak Obama got his health care law and subsequently won reelection.
Part of the reason for the difference, I think, is the intense public scrutiny and attention given to the daily shenanigans of Washington and the dominating spotlight of news coverage that shines on the White House.
Here in Missouri's statehouse, there's far less intense coverage. The statehouse is located in one of the nation's smallest capital cities where metro-market TV stations rarely venture.
Years ago, a long-term lawmaker told me that as legislators gain experience in the statehouse, they realize they are free to vote however they want without fear of political consequence.
There is so little news coverage of the daily routine activities of state government and so less interest by the public than in the federal government that a legislator has little to fear from the public.
I suspect he might have had a point.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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