By Karen Shanton
Governors can veto legislatures’ bills. And, if they muster the numbers, legislatures can override these vetoes.
Veto overrides can happen no matter the partisan breakdown of the state government. The Republican-held South Carolina Legislature overturned 36 of Republican Governor Mark Sanford’s 46 vetoes in 2010 and Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove saw 48 of his 58 vetoes fall to Mississippi’s Democratically-controlled Legislature in 2001. But there’s a particular setup that seems particularly likely to produce overrides: a governor from one party and a veto-proof legislature led by another.
Two states currently fit this description. Arkansas and Missouri both have Democratic governors—Arkansas’ Mike Beebe survived a nationwide Republican wave in 2010 and Missouri’s Jay Nixon was re-elected in 2012—and both picked up Republican veto-proof legislatures in 2012.
Missouri recently wrapped up its veto session so now’s a good time to check out the results. Did Republican majorities in these two states make use of their newfound override powers?
The short answer is yes. Before the most recent election, the Arkansas General Assembly was in Democratic hands and it didn’t override any of Governor Beebe’s vetoes. [He also didn’t give it many opportunities. According to The Council of State Governments, after striking down eight bills in his first year, he didn’t veto another regular session bill (not including line item or partial vetoes) until this year.] In 2013, by contrast, the Republican-led General Assembly overturned a full half of his six vetoes.
Unlike Governor Beebe, Missouri Governor Nixon has faced a Republican-controlled General Assembly since he first took office in 2009. Unsurprisingly, he’s also vetoed more bills. Between 2009 and 2012, he issued 56 regular session vetoes (again, not including line item and partial vetoes) and the legislature reversed one of them. Still, as in Arkansas, the override numbers in Missouri soared after the 2012 election. Governor Nixon vetoed 29 bills in 2013 and the legislature overturned about a third of them.
There’s also a longer story here, beyond the raw numbers of overrides. If we dig into the details of the specific legislation in the two states, we find an interesting difference. The three vetoes the Arkansas General Assembly reversed were all of controversial legislation. Two were abortion bans and the third was a voter ID bill. In Missouri, on the other hand, the most controversial vetoes held firm. The highest profile bills Governor Nixon vetoed were a gun measure and a tax cut bill. Despite strong opposition from some lawmakers, both of these vetoes survived the veto session.
This disparity may be due, at least in part, to a difference in override requirements in the states. Missouri, like most other states, requires a two-thirds supermajority for veto overrides. In Arkansas, on the other hand, a simple majority will do. So, to override a veto in Arkansas, you just have to reunite the group that passed the legislation in the first place. In Missouri, by contrast, you have to pull together a broader coalition. For obvious reasons, the former task is a significantly lighter lift than the latter.
Karen Shanton is a legislative studies specialist and ACLS public fellow at NCSL.