Lawmakers that have been working on the rewrite of Missouri’s criminal code for years say this is still the year to get it passed, despite the reservations expressed by Governor Jay Nixon (D) about its size.
Nixon has suggested that the rewrite – currently more than 1,000 pages in length in the House version and down to about 700 pages in a Senate version revamped during the legislative spring break – be broken into sections and passed rather than one bill. The Governor is reportedly concerned that in a bill that size, mistakes could be made.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) has said he will not bring up the bill in that chamber until all parties decide how to proceed.
Senator Jolie Justus (D-Kansas City) says it’s frustrating for the Governor to raise this concern now.
“We’re always frustrated when we hear about any problem with a bill this late in,” says Justus. “I think that we have said for the last three years now that the biggest issue with this bill is its size. We are continuing to work with our fellow colleagues, we are continuing to have conversations with the Governor’s office about the nature of the bill, what’s in it, what’s not in it, and how we can get to a path to getting it passed because this is the year to get it done and we intend to do that.”
Representative Stanley Cox (R-Sedalia) says separating the issue out into several smaller bills would kill the proposal.
“There is no practical way of breaking it into sections,” says Cox. “It was essentially a five-year process … and three years actually it’s been filed in the Missouri General Assembly … and it was never designed to be broken into several pieces.”
Justus, however, doesn’t rule out taking the Governor’s suggestion.
“That is going to be a difficult row, but I never say, ‘never,’ on anything. We are looking at all options.”
The legislature could pass the rewrite legislation and if the Governor vetoes it, attempt to override the veto, but Cox doesn’t believe it would play out that way.
“It’s pretty hard to believe the Governor would veto legislation that not only has previously been vetted to such a high degree but also has built-in safety nets all over the place,” says Cox.
The “safety nets” Cox refers to include the effective date of the legislation, which lawmakers plan to push back to January 1, 2017. The Missouri Supreme Court’s Standing Committee on Criminal Procedure will review the bill after passage.
Cox notes Governor Nixon will also have time for the lawyers that work for him to review the bill after its passage.
“He’s got what I would consider a rather large law firm,” says Cox. ”That’s what lawyers are paid to do, is look through complicated things and say if they’re good or bad, and the Governor is better capable of doing that than almost anybody I know.”
“I think we’ve addressed every concern that’s been raised substantively,” says Senator Bob Dixon (R-Springfield).
“What we are doing is saying that we are standing here ready, willing and able to negotiate, talk, do whatever we need to move this idea forward,” says Justus. “The time has come. In order for us to have an effective, responsible, safe criminal justice system, we need to get this done.”
“It’s great to accomodate the Governor if we can,” says Cox, “but my inclination is to take the code – what we have vetted in both legislative bodies – and try to pass it and deal with it that way.”
Another state lawmaker who has spent a great deal of time and effort on the criminal code is Representative Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), who offered an open letter to fellow legislators about the Governor’s position. See the story on that letter for what he had to say.