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Nixon touts job creation programs in his State of the State address

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2010 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon primarily stuck to the basics -- jobs, the state budget and ethics reform -- in a State of the State speech Wednesday night that, particularly on the economic front, echoed the themes of his first address a year ago.

Just as he did last year, Nixon highlighted new programs aimed at creating and retaining jobs for Missourians hard-hit by the economic collapse.

While acknowledging that the state is financially strapped, Nixon also reaffirmed his promise that his current and future budgets would not cut spending for the state's public schools. However, his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year doesn't fully fund the state's chief school-aid program, known as the Foundation Formula.

The governor underscored his commitment -- required by state law -- to keep the state's budget balanced. To that end, just an hour before Nixon took the microphone, his budget director announced the latest $200 million in cuts to the current year's budget, forced by lower-than-expected state revenue.

Nixon, a Democrat, also emphasized his support for ethics measures for legislators, and called for the return of restrictions on campaign donations that the Republican-controlled Legislature tossed out in 2007.

But the governor only briefly touched on the state's health-care needs -- a shift from his campaign focus in 2008. And Wednesday's address ignored the political fallout from Tuesday's Republican victory for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, although it was on the minds of many GOP legislators in his audience.

Nixon aides said afterward that the governor believed it was far more important to focus on Missouri jobs than on political events hundreds of miles away.

Indeed, the bulk of Nixon's 49-minute address centered on his administration's actions, past and present, to jump-start Missouri's economy, where the jobless rate now hovers near the national average of 10 percent. The governor also sought to paint an optimistic portrait of the future.

"Times may be tough. But Missourians are tougher." he said. "Remember the lesson of the ice storm: Our greatest strength lies in one another. If we can hang tough a little longer, work together and stay on the path, we're going to keep climbing ... and climbing ... and climbing ... until we see the bright horizon."

After detailing some of the successes of his administration's 2009 efforts, boosted by the Legislature's approval last session of his Quality Jobs programs, Nixon outlined his new four-part job-creation initiatives:

  • "Missouri First," which he called "my loyalty program for businesses that are already here. They'll go to the head of the line for financial incentives to help expand plants or payrolls."
  • The "Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act" (MOSIRA) that "will reinvest a small part of the taxes paid by existing bio-tech firms in Missouri, to recruit new ones." The state already has a pool of 1,000 such companies and should focus on attracting more, the governor said.
  • "Training for Tomorrow," aimed at directing young people to "jobs in growing fields, like lab techs, nursing aides, surveyors and mechanics," by giving the state's community colleges "the flexibility to enlarge training programs where there's high demand."
  • "Show-Me Heroes," a new jobs initiative that helps promote jobs for returning veterans. The leader of the new effort, Lt. Col. Alan Rohlfing of the Missouri Army National Guard, will "be calling on employers all over the state, telling them about our disciplined, dedicated, hard-working veterans,'' the governor said. "When a job comes open, I want a veteran's resume on the top of the stack, so they get first crack at an interview."

In another pro-veteran act, Nixon pledged to continue to phase out the state's income tax on military pensions.
The governor also proposed a new summer-jobs program for the state's parks system, that he said could put 1,000 teens to work.

But state Republican leaders weren't swayed by Nixon's emphasis on jobs, or even his promise not to raise taxes.

In the GOP response, delivered after Nixon's address, Lt. Gov Peter Kinder criticized the governor for proposing to add programs during a time of tight budgets, and his use of the federal stimulus aid. "Now is not the time for ideas to grow the size of government," Kinder said. "Our most important goal should be putting people back to work."

He also accused Nixon's administration of mismanaging taxpayer dollars because some income tax refunds were sent out late.

The state Democratic Party swiftly shot back by detailing job-creation programs from 2009 that Kinder had opposed, and how many businesses or people had been helped. The Democratic Party also accused Kinder of making factual errors in his response. For example, Kinder accused Nixon of already spending 80 percent of the federal stimulus aid. The governor's staff said only 64 percent has been committed.

What the numbers say

For the current budget, which continues through June 30, Nixon announced new trims totaling just more than $200 million.

About a quarter were outright cuts, such as $15.9 million for the Department of Public Safety's statewide emergency radio improvements, $13 million for the Access Missouri school scholarship program and $9.2 million from the state's Medicaid program. Smaller cuts included $682,000 earmarked for construction at the state Capitol.

The remaining $150 million in this year's cuts came from federal stimulus aid that had been allocated for university construction projects and economic help.

The affected projects included money for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia's medical school.

Nixon is recommending that next year's budget, which goes into effect July 1, reflect a reduction of 544 state jobs, most of which already are vacant, said Budget Director Linda Luebbering.

Those job cuts are part of 1,800 state jobs that Nixon noted in his speech that he has eliminated since taking office a year ago.

All told, Nixon is proposing $253 million in general revenue trims. Besides the 544 jobs, the cuts would come from management changes in the state Medicaid program that Luebbering said would save money without cutting benefits for most recipients.

Nixon also is proposing some budget increases for FY 2011, including:

  • $25 million to expand the A Plus scholarship program
  • $18 million more for the state's Foundation Formula that funds public schools, grades kindergartern-12th grade.
  • $2 million for public defenders, which provides legal services for the poor. The addition would pay for 85 new lawyers, Luebbering said.

House Republican leaders also asserted that Nixon wasn't practicing what he is preaching in regards to ethics reform. They cited the hefty individual donations that he has received since taking office, including a $12,000 campaign contribution after he renwed his call for campaign-donation limits. "It's completely disingenuous," said state House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville.
But Tilley and House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, did say that if an ethics bill with campaign-donation limits got the House floor, they would bring it to a vote.

Nixon's passing reference in his speech to health care also was enough to prompt a shout of dissent from his audience, in a scene similar to the attention-grabbing episode in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last year.

In Nixon's case, he mentioned in his address his unsuccessful effort last year to add 35,000 low-income Missourians to the state's Medicaid rolls, at no cost to taxpayers.

The governor then took note of the congressional debate over health care. and obliquely exhorted the Legislature to drop proposals that call for the state to opt out of any federal health care changes. Nixon has said that the state should not risk billions of dollars a year in additional federal health care aid.

"If that federal legislation passes," he said, "it's our job to show steady, bipartisan leadership and maximize the benefits for the people of Missouri."

But Nixon was interrupted after the word "passes,'' by an as-yet unidentified legislator who shouted, "It won't!"

Afterwards, Richard said that House leaders also want to help expand insurance access for people who lack coverage. But Kinder and others, including House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, accused the governor of dodging questions about whether he supports the latest versions of the federal health-care proposals.

Referring to the Massachusetts' election, Pratt said, "The governor forgot to watch the news last night."

Nixon's staff replied that the governor thought talking about jobs was more important.

Watch Party at Webster

At Webster University in Webster Groves, dozens of people watched Nixon's address on large screen, and then listened to analysis from former Gov. Bob Holden, who had organized the event.

Others offering assessments included former state Rep. Betty Hearnes, the 1988 Democratic nominee for governor and the wife of the late Gov. Warren Hearnes.

Betty Hearnes praised Nixon's delivery, saying that he came off as authentic.

As for the specifics of his job-creation promises, Hearnes implied that it was too early to say. She quipped, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

One member of the audience said he was offended by the shouting legislator, and recalled that Holden had faced a similar episode when he was governor. (The offender in that earlier instance was then-Rep. Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, who later becamse speaker. Legislative leaders declined Wednesday to identify who shouted at Nixon, and the governor's staff said they didn't know.)

Holden said any such an interruption of a head of state "sends the wrong message to our children about what proper decorum is all about."

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.

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