Abortion, gun bills go around governor

Friday, September 12, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With Senate action on vetoed abortion and concealed weapons bills Thursday, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden became the first Missouri chief executive in history to be overruled by the legislature on more than one issue during the course of his administration.

The upper chamber mustered the two-thirds majorities needed to enact into law over Holden's objections measures allowing eligible Missourians to obtain concealed weapons permits and imposing a 24-hour waiting period on women seeking an abortion. The House of Representatives, which like the Senate is Republican-controlled, had voted to override those bills on Wednesday. Both measures will take effect Oct. 11.

The Senate also overrode Holden's veto of a bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, that would bar Missouri and its cities and counties from suing the firearms industry over the social costs of gun violence. The House will consider the matter today. Supporters anticipate the House effort will be successful.

Prior to Thursday's action, there had been just seven successful veto overrides in state history, though two of those in the 19th century involved multiple related bills.

Holden, who rejected 30 bills passed during the legislative session that ended in May, said he still feels his actions were in the best interest of Missourians.

"I think the rights of women have been compromised, and I think that's unfortunate," Holden said. "I don't think having the gun legislation makes us any safer as a state. I think it puts some of our citizens in harm's way. But the legislature has spoken."

The Senate sustained Holden's vetoes of tort reform legislation and a bill that would have allowed counties to establish special funds for law enforcement supported by fees paid in criminal cases.

Kinder and Southeast Missouri's other senator, Republican Bill Foster of Poplar Bluff, supported overrides on all issues the chamber considered Thursday.

While the Senate's action on the abortion bill had been expected, the fate of the concealed weapons measure remained uncertain almost until the moment of the vote. With a 23-10 result, supporters achieved the bare minimum needed to override.

Three senators played key roles in the drama surrounding the bill, which would allow Missourians age 23 and older who undergo firearms training and pass a background check to receive a concealed weapons permit. Those convicted of felonies or violent misdemeanors and those with a documented history of mental illness or substance abuse would be ineligible.

State Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis, arrived in Missouri late Wednesday from the country of Cuba, where he is stationed with his National Guard unit.

Even with Dolan's presence, considered key to overrides, supporters needed Senate Majority Floor Leader Michael Gibbons of Kirkwood, the lone Republican to vote against the bill last spring, to switch sides.

Gibbons, whose legislative district overwhelming opposed a 1999 ballot measure on the issue, said he agonized over his position for months before deciding to support the override early Thursday morning.

Gibbons said the eventual passage of a concealed weapons bill is inevitable. Compared to the 44 other states that have some form of the law, the present Missouri proposal is among the most restrictive, he said.

"I believe we are safer with a restrictive bill today than we would be with a riskier bill tomorrow," Gibbons said.

The third wild card was state Sen. Jim Mathewson of Sedalia, one of only three Democratic supporters.

During a heartfelt speech on the complexity of the issue, Mathewson appeared poised to vote in favor of sustaining his fellow Democrat's veto. However, Mathewson stood firm.

"You know what? I want to get rid of the damn issue; I'm tired of it," Mathewson said. "If we don't deal with it today, it will be back in January."

The abortion measure was overridden 25-8, with five Democrats joining the Senate's 20 Republicans. The bill will force women to get informed consent from a doctor at least 24-hours before receiving an abortion.

In a sarcastic maneuver, Senate Minority Floor Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, attempted to delay the vote until this afternoon.

"Maybe with another 24 hours, some of the people who are thinking about overriding the governor will have an opportunity to rethink that decision," Jacob said.

State Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, said the bill is demeaning to women.

"The Missouri Legislature says 'Go home little girl and wait 24 hours because you are not smart enough to decide to have an abortion,'" Bray said.

Kinder's bill on gun lawsuits barely cleared the Senate 23-10. The measure is intended to derail a lawsuit filed by St. Louis city that has languished in court for years.

"I believe the House will follow suit and override, probably by a bigger margin than we did," Kinder said.

House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, echoed Kinder's assessment. The House originally passed the measure 118-41. A two-thirds House majority requires 109 votes.

Hundreds of physicians converged on the Capitol in a last-ditch lobbying effort on tort reform. The doctors said limits on civil lawsuits are needed to control rising medical malpractice insurance rates that are forcing some to give up their practices.

Opponents said the bill would have done little to address malpractice insurance costs and was too expansive, limiting the ability of injured parties to pursue civil cases against all businesses. The override effort fell two votes short with a 21-12 result.

Also defeated was a measure that would have allowed counties to establish "crime reduction funds" to help finance local law enforcement. Under the bill, judges could have ordered defendants to pay into the fund fees of up to $250 as a term of probation when receiving suspended sentences.

Holden said the measure, which Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan has spent years lobbying for, violated the Missouri Constitution, which earmarks fines in criminal cases for education.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring, conceded the provision could have problems, but urged passage because it contained numerous other important sections related to county government. The Senate sustained the veto 22-10.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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