Missouri voters have handed Republican state lawmakers an immense amount of power.
As a result of the recent elections, Republicans will have some of their largest-ever majorities when the House and Senate convene in January. They also will carry new authority to override the budget decisions of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, thanks to voter approval of a constitutional amendment.
The large majorities mean Republican legislators can enact any law they want, even if Nixon vetoes it. And they can spend money on anything they desire, even if the governor believes the state cannot afford it.
In short: “The Legislature is going to run the state of Missouri over next two years, not Gov. Nixon,” said House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.
Jones won’t be around to enjoy the spoils of victory; he’s leaving office in January because of term limits. The newfound power will be held by state Rep. John Diehl, the current House majority leader who has been nominated as the next speaker.
The Missouri Constitution allows the Legislature to override gubernatorial vetoes by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. Republicans already held a supermajority before the election, but just barely. Come January, their ranks will swell to 118 House seats and 25 Senate seats — well more than the 109 House and 23 Senate votes needed for veto overrides.
Because voters also approved constitutional Amendment 10, legislators will be able to use that same two-thirds vote to override gubernatorial decisions to freeze or slow spending for budgeted programs. Legislators, not the governor, will have the final say on spending decisions.
The shift could come into play quickly, because Nixon currently is blocking about $720 million of spending while asserting that the state won’t have enough revenues to cover it all. If Nixon has not relaxed those spending restrictions by the time lawmakers convene, “my guess is we’re going to get a tryout of Amendment 10,” Diehl said.
Nixon has continued to defend his budget decisions, saying revenues would have to grow at 11 percent — more than double what’s anticipated — to fully fund everything.
“That’s why I will continue to exercise fiscal restraint in order to keep the budget balanced and our state on a sustainable track,” Nixon said after last week’s elections.
Since he took office in 2009, Nixon has restricted more than $2 billion of spending, including some items that were frozen as leverage to try to persuade lawmakers not to enact tax breaks. Frustration with those tactics is what led lawmakers to refer Amendment 10 to the ballot.
Diehl said the election results could be viewed as “a repudiation” of how Nixon has governed over the past couple of years.
But political science professor Jay Dow, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, said it may be inaccurate to interpret the election as an intentional slap to Nixon, who has two years remaining in office. The enlarged Republican legislative majorities were part of a national trend and may have occurred regardless of what Nixon had done in office, Dow said.
Passage of the budget amendment may also have had less to do with voter frustrations about Nixon than a simple reading of the generally appealing ballot wording. The measure stated that it would require the governor to pay the public debt, prohibit him from relying on revenue from legislation not yet passed when proposing a budget and provide a “legislative check” on the governor’s budget decisions to restrict funding for education and other services.
The election doesn’t make Nixon irrelevant, Dow said, but “it certainly puts him in a position where he’s got to be able to negotiate better with the Republicans in the Legislature, because they have enough of a majority that they could sideline him if they wanted to.”
Diehl said he’s willing to work with Nixon. But if the governor does “not provide meaningful input during the process, I think we’ll exercise our majorities and our budgetary tools we that we’re now afforded under the Missouri Constitution,” he added.