ST. LOUIS — Supporters of House Bill 650 weren’t surprised to hear that the governor vetoed the legislation that might be the last hope for the future of the Doe Run Company.
“I had an indication from staff that there was a good chance he would veto it,” Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County, said. “My hope was if he couldn’t sign it he would leave it be and let it become law.”
A bipartisan group of legislators from Jefferson and St. Francois counties came together the last few months to tout their support of HB 650, which seeks to cap punitive damages for the company at $2.5 million. That cap, McKenna said, is the certainty the company needs in order to build a new facility with Environmental Protection Agency-approved technology after they close the doors of their current facility come December.
“The reason I care about this issue is that this bill didn’t directly effect Herculaneum where their lead facility is, but if they could get some certainty, they would build a new water-based process that would reduce emissions by like 99 percent,” McKenna said, talking about new technology the company has been developing. If they’re able to secure that certainty, the new facility could be up and running in 18 months.
In his veto letter, Gov. Jay Nixon points out that everything in HB 650 pertaining to the bill’s initial purpose (the Department of Natural Resources) was signed into law on other pieces of legislation, but that his veto stems from not wanting to exempt a “single class of entities” — or one company — from punitive damages.
“A bill that seeks to create an exemption for one company simply cannot become law,” Nixon said during a press conference Friday.
In his veto letter, Nixon criticizes the fact that HB 650 looks to impact lawsuits that already have been filed, even after a judgment for damages was ordered.
“If this provision became law, it could result in considerable inequities among individuals who may have been harmed by the same defendant under similar circumstances simply because certain parties were not as fast to the courthouse,” Nixon wrote in his letter.
Advocating in opposition for the bill throughout session was the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, who shared many of the concerns Nixon, a former prosecutor, expressed in his veto.
Matt Wohl, Vice President of Law for Doe Run, issued a statement Friday that said the company is disappointed with the veto.
“HB 650 provides protections for companies like Doe Run, who are conducting remediation in a responsible and government supervised manner,” Wohl said. “The governor’s veto message mischaracterizes this legislation. Signing HB 650 would continue to provide plaintiffs’ access to compensatory damages and access to punitive damages, when appropriate. It does not impact past legal judgments or decisions.”
The statement says the company provides 1,500 jobs directly in the state, as well as 6,000 indirectly.
“[Doe Run is] by far the biggest contributor of the City of Herculaneum’s budget,” McKenna told The Missouri Times, giving an example of the company’s importance to the area. “It accounts for about 27 percent of the entire budget. I don’t know what they’re going to have to do to replace that, but it’s probably going to involve taxes and increases.”
The next step: pushing the effort to override the governor’s veto.
A group of legislators from the two affected counties have banded together, along with support of leadership, to spearhead the push toward overriding the veto. Though the first vote count isn’t a precise indication of what numbers to expect for September, it looks like the Senate votes are closer to the veto-proof majority needed than the House.
The final Senate vote was 22-10 — though not on party lines — with Sen. Eric Schmitt, voting yes on the emergency clause though absent from the main vote, and Sen. Scott Rupp absent from both. The veto-proof majority in the Senate is 23 votes, which they would have with Schmitt’s vote.
In the House, the 91-66 final vote, with six absent, leaves supporters quite shy of the 108 votes needed to override.
“That’s a lot of people you’re going to have to change,” McKenna said about the House numbers, expressing his confidence that the votes are set in the Senate. “That’s a big challenge, but I know that labor groups and Doe Run are working on talking with people.”
House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said he planned to make HB 650 a priority during veto session in September, calling the probability “very favorable” for an override.
“I think it’s shameful and the governor should be ashamed of himself for vetoing a bipartisan bill for job creation,” Jones told The Missouri Times, saying that among those in the House who are spearheading the push forward is Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart. “Jeff and I agree on a couple of things and job creation is one of them. If we can override this in a bipartisan manner, that will really say something.”
A task force made of predominantly legislators met a week ago to hear a presentation from Doe Run. The group, led by Sen. Gary Romine, R-St.Francois County, includes all of the Jefferson and St. Francois counties’ legislators with the exception of Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge, who does not support the bill.
Last week, Romine said the group’s future would depend on the veto and there would be some regrouping after Nixon handed down his decision. Many members of the group have said they intend to help advocate for an override during the coming months before veto session begins.
Ashley Jost is no longer with The Missouri Times. She worked as the executive editor for several months, and a reporter before that.