Missouri legislature enters veto session after challenging year
By Susan E. Sagarra
While the 2015 session of the Missouri General Assembly may be remembered for tragic deaths and texting scandals, lawmakers did debate state policies.
The state’s political landscape was marred early in the legislative session with the sudden deaths of State Auditor Tom Schweich (R) and his spokesman, Spence Jackson. Late in the session, House Speaker John Diehl (R-Dist. 89) stepped down following a sexting scandal involving an intern, and Sen. Paul LeVota (D-Dist. 11) resigned this summer after similar allegations surfaced.
“There were some bad things that happened but when you peel it all away and look at how the legislature functioned, we did some great things,” said former Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey (R-Dist. 23) in a recent interview. “While the auditor’s death didn’t impact things from a policy perspective, it certainly affected the mood of the chamber. Then we had (former U.S. Sen. John) Danforth’s eulogy about negative campaigning. I’ve personally always hated negative campaigning. We are in public life and we have to be role models. If we don’t respect each other, the people won’t respect us. It’s very important how we treat each other.”
Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Dist. 15) said that despite the distractions, Missourians expected results.
“Anytime things like (Schweich’s and Jackson’s deaths) happen, they are incredibly sad events,” Schmitt said. “It was shocking and, of course, affected people. But we also had a job to do and we were sent to Jefferson City to do the people’s business. The situation with Diehl was really in the last week and it affected the House Caucus, but the Senate was dealing with its own business. After we passed Right to Work, we were in the middle of a filibuster by the Senate Democrats. Fortunately, the major pieces of legislation were passed before the last week.”
Another jolt came in July, when Dempsey announced his resignation, stating that he will not return for his final session after a 15-year career in the legislature. In August, he became a partner and director of business development for Gate Way Group, where he will lobby about health care policy and other issues. Dempsey said he will not be lobbying Missouri legislators.
He also said his departure has nothing to do with anything seamy.
“People do ask, ‘what’s his scandal?’ and my scandal is simply that I’m poor,” Dempsey said. “I need to make a living and provide for my family.” (Missouri lawmakers currently earn $35,915 per year)
Dempsey was elected to the Missouri Senate in 2007 following a special election. He was re-elected in 2008 and rose to the rank of Majority Floor Leader before being unanimously elected to serve as Senate President Pro Tem in 2013. He previously had served seven years in the Missouri House of Representatives (2001-2007), where he was Majority Leader and chairman of the Job Creation and Economic Development Committee.
The discussion about whether Dempsey would step down began last fall when his family sold the family-owned The Columns Banquet Center in St. Charles.
“I had a year and a half tail to find employment,” Dempsey said. “It had been part of my life for 25 years. It was our past, present and future, and was part of my retirement. The three partners were in their 70s. Then my Mom passed away.
“I lost some income with closing the banquet center and my wife started working a new job in February. I started talking quietly to people about how I could make an income and finish my term without a conflict of interest. I couldn’t make the math work for my family and I couldn’t be unemployed for the next six months. I had to make my family my first priority and the legislature second.”
Dempsey also considered a run for governor or Congress, but current U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Dist. 3) announced early that he would seek re-election in 2016. Dempsey did not want to challenge his colleague.
“Having been in leadership, I have been running around the state for 14 years, through seven election cycles,” Dempsey said. “I didn’t feel like living out of my car for a year and a half traveling to 114 counties. The only job policy-wise that I would have been interested in, in the state, is the governor.
“I didn’t feel like now was the right time to do that. I thought about it but it wasn’t worth the sacrifice.”
Despite all of the turmoil and changes, the Missouri Legislature did pass some key bills. Unfortunately for lawmakers, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) vetoed some of the Republican-controlled legislature’s top priorities. New leadership in both the House and Senate are working to secure the votes needed to override those vetoes in the Sept. 16 veto session.
Nixon vetoed House Bill 42, which, among numerous other things, establishes a system of school accreditation based on each building rather than the entire district. It also establishes standards for student transfers from unaccredited districts.
Rep. Bryan Spencer (R-Dist. 63) agreed.
“It’s a huge bill, but it basically deals with student transfer,” Spencer said. “I don’t know why the governor vetoed it. Now, I don’t think there is one correct fix for education issues. There are so many factors that education gets blamed for what educators can’t control. You have to consider the environment of the students, the parents, their economic status. There are more than 20 factors of what can affect a child’s education and it’s more than just the funding mechanism. Some school districts get $19,000-$20,000 per student and are failing while others get $5,000 per student and are doing great. But you can’t legislate the economic status of a parent.
“Blaming teachers also is not the answer. We need to quit saying it’s not my problem. Education is everyone’s problem.”
Spencer said he would like to see more alternatives, such as charter schools and virtual education, both of which were promoted in House Bill 42.
“We have a vast amount of resources – homeschool, private, public, charter, virtual schools – and parents should be the ultimate decision-makers for their children’s education,” Spencer said. “I think both Republicans and Democrats believe that. We just fight over how to get there.”
Schmitt said that education reform is needed sooner rather than later.
“Other states are moving forward with education reform,” Schmitt said. “The governor hasn’t offered solutions. It took a lot of work in the House and Senate to get this passed. Last year, he objected to the provision that kids could transfer to religious or private schools. He wanted that gone and also wanted a bill with virtual schools included. That’s exactly what we did. He still vetoed it. We need to fix education now. If kids go two, three, four years and they’re already in third or fourth grade, they don’t get those years back. The governor is stuck in neutral.”
Dempsey echoed that sentiment.
“Our responsibility is to the children,” Dempsey said. “Are we providing access to education for all children? I had public meetings after session and told people that if the governor vetoes it, there won’t be a transfer bill in 2016. They will wait until we have a new governor. We addressed eight of his nine objections from the previous year. His administration was aware of what was in the bill as it went through the legislative process. I can’t do anything about whatever his issues were when he vetoed it in June.”
Nixon also vetoed House Bill 116, known as the Right to Work legislation. The bill prohibits an employer from requiring a person to become a member of a labor organization as a condition of their employment. Employees also would not be required to pay union dues.
Local lawmakers are not certain they can override the veto. Spencer said he is turning to his constituents before he makes his final decision.
“Both sides are trying to bully me,” Spencer said. “Both sides are telling the truth, but they don’t tell the whole truth on either side. I’m conducting a survey to every voting household and then I will vote the way my constituents want.”
Nixon did sign Senate Bill 5, the municipal court reform bill, which Schmitt sponsored. One of its main provisions is that the limit on annual general operating revenue from traffic fines is reduced from 30 percent to 20 percent.
“The predatory practices and citizens being viewed as ATMs in St. Louis County, in particular, had to stop,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt, who is entering his final session before running for state treasurer in 2016, said the legislature also passed a budget with a record $90 million surplus.
“Two years ago, we cut taxes for individuals and business and I would like to see us go further,” Schmitt said. “I would like to see some of that money returned to the citizens. Individuals know how better to spend their money than the government. We need policies such as lower taxes and right to work. The federal government also is not the answer. It’s our job as a state to take the lead and give Missourians more of their own money to spend.”