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Nixon defends budget cuts, seeks end to 'histrionics' over tardy release of lake data

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 21, 2009 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon says he hopes the state’s improved employment figures signal that his latest round of budget cuts will be among the last.

His aim with this week’s $60 million in trims, he told reporters Friday, was to avoid “a budget cliff.”

“We’re hopeful. We did flatten out in unemployment this month,’’ Nixon said during a news conference while in St. Louis. (Missouri’s unemployment rate in July was 9.3 percent, the same as in June.)

But Nixon added that a key reason for his decision to be aggressive with budget cuts – close to $500 million so far for the current fiscal year that began July 1 – reflects his belief that it’s best to nip the threat of deficits in the bud.

“Making those decisions early in the fiscal year makes it less likely you’ll have them later,’’ the governor said, “…You get the benefit of (the cuts) throughout the entire fiscal year.”

He noted that unlike the federal government, Missouri and most other states have to balance their budgets. “States that wait on these decisions and wait until the back end of the fiscal year…it’s much more difficult for them,’’ Nixon added.

The governor acknowledged that he’s made some budget cuts in order to conserve federal stimulus money for spending down the road. Some states who already have used all their federal stimulus money for short-term budget fixes, he continued, “now look at a budget cliff.

“We’ve avoided that,’’ Nixon said. “We will keep watching this very carefully.”

Although acknowledging that his cuts mean the elimination of hundreds of state jobs, and reductions in some state programs in every state agency, the governor said, “I don’t think Missourians will see drastic dramatic cuts to crucial services.”

“I’m bullish on Missouri’s economy,’’ he continued. “I’m actually hopeful that we’re gonna see in the next number of months, see a rebound.”

--The governor also touched on several other topics, notably the continued controversy over the state Department of Natural Resources’ decision to withhold for weeks public information showing that the Lake of the Ozarks in May had unsafe levels E. coli -- bacteria prevalent in human and animal waste.

The governor reinterated his earlier concession that the “information should have been released.”

He then asserted “histrionics about information being released a few days or weeks perhaps later that it should have been” should not distract the public and politicians from the broader issue: “How do we make sure to protect the water of the Lake of the Ozarks?” 

“We would all get down to a serious discussion about what we can do to make that the water in that beautiful lake that has provided so much joy and so much income to the state over the years in tourism is protected,” Nixon said.

Nixon’s news conference was held at a public library in the Central West End with St. Louis Police Chief Daniel Isom. The topic: To announce a pilot program that involves a change in the design of the state’s license-plate tags to make them less attractive to thieves.

The new tags include the purchaser’s license-plate number and other features that authorities believe will make them harder to steal – and easier to trace.

More than a dozen other states, including Illinois, already have the license-plate number on their tags for similar reasons. Observed the governor: “It’s one of those things where you wonder – why did it take so long to figure it out?”

Nixon’s public appearance was his first in St. Louis since he injured his calf muscle in his left leg  more than a week ago during a pick-up basketball game. He now sports a soft cast on his left leg.

When asked how long he will wear the cast, Nixon replied that he wasn’t going to say because “you all might tell my doctor.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.