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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL227.PRB - An Historic Veto Session
The recent veto session of Missouri's legislature added another page in an historic record of legislative defeats for the state's governor. Nearly two-thirds of Jay Nixon's vetoes were overridden this year.
With those 15 overrides, Nixon has suffered a total of 96 overrides during the eight legislative sessions he has been governor.
That's an historical record.
The Senate's acting Democratic leader -- Sen. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County -- said it simply was because Republicans have the two-thirds majority needed to override the Democratic governor's vetoes.
"They have the votes to do it and they're going to do it with or without us and that was proven tonight," she said.
But Republican leaders put the blame on Nixon's shoulders for failing to work with the legislature.
Senate GOP Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said there would have been fewer vetoes to override if Nixon had worked with legislators in crafting bills rather than waiting to simply veto what he didn't like.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said even department directors refused to work with committee chairs.
"His people are not as engaged, particularly the department heads, aren't engaged with my chairmen as much as they should," Richard said shortly after the Senate adjourned the veto session.
"We don't expect a governor to talk with everybody all the time, but some of his people (are) less than helpful in drafting legislation."
Richard and Kehoe have a point. Nixon has been more disengaged from the legislature than any governor I've covered. Even some Democrats have voiced frustrations about Nixon.
At a news conference the day after veto session, Nixon virtually conceded the point.
"I don't spend a lot of time, nor does my administration, crafting bills that we disagree with," Nixon told reporters when asked about the criticism.
But partisan differences over issues is only part of the story.
Back when Democrats controlled the legislature, two Republican governors I covered enjoyed strong working relationships with the General Assembly -- Kit Bond followed by John Ashcroft.
Those two governors did not have the record of veto defeats from Democrats that Republican lawmakers have handed Nixon. Bond suffered just one override even though for part of his time in office Democrats enjoyed a two-thirds super-majority.
A major difference was their approach to the legislature. They worked with lawmakers. Bond was the most gregarious.
In his second term, almost every week when the legislature was in session, Bond would wander up to the fourth-floor office of a Democratic senator where colleagues gathered for a long night of comradery.
These were not formal negotiating sessions. Instead, it was just a time to enjoy one another's company and develop friendships.
It paid off, big time.
I regularly heard Democratic Senate leaders talk about Bond and Ashcroft with a level of respect that you rarely hear today about Nixon from legislators of the opposition party.
Democratic legislators really liked those two GOP governors. And, in hindsight, I've begun to better understand the significance of those friendships and the benefits as well as concessions that arose.
Back in that earlier era, more than once I heard a Democratic legislative leader tell me he wanted to avoid embarrassing the governor.
But there's still more to this story.
The political climate during the Bond and Ashcroft administrations was very different from today. The political parties were far less divided by ideology.
Many Senate Democrats were as conservative as Republicans and there were a significant number of moderate Republicans.
Bond even championed an aggressive consumer-protection package that had strong Democratic support.
We saw an example of Bond's moderation a couple of years ago when he took on the unsuccessful effort to win state legislative approval for Medicaid expansion that enjoys little support among today's Republican lawmakers.
Another difference between these two eras involves term limits.
Legislators today simply do not have enough time in office to develop the skills and personal relationships to forge cross-party compromises.
Finally, there's another factor for Nixon's historical record.
For much of Missouri's history, there was no veto session and the legislature met just once every two years. So, lawmakers simply did not have the opportunity to override every veto like they do now.
[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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