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Nixon paints picture of leaner, more austere state government in Wash U speech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2010 - While promoting his budget-cutting prowess, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon came face to face Wednesday with a potential victim: Washington University freshman Lauren Ortwein.

The daughter of a disabled Vietnam veteran, Ortwein -- who hails from south St. Louis County -- said her future at the respected and pricey private institution depends in part on her continuing to receive state aid from two programs: Access Missouri and Bright Flight.

The two programs now provide Ortwein with about $4,600 a year. But under Nixon's latest proposals, such programs would be reduced or eliminated for students at Missouri's private colleges and universities.

Standing among students and faculty at Washington University, Ortwein told the governor that he needed to understand the importance of such education aid -- and the pain to families if it is pulled away.

"I've been listening," the governor replied. "You're not the only one who has said something."

Nixon said that he remained convinced that Missouri couldn't afford to use tax dollars "to incentive education" at private institutions.

But then the governor added that he was open to a proposed compromise that would keep the aid intact at present levels for current private-college students, and phase it out for future recipients.

Nixon later told reporters that he was confident such a deal would be struck shortly. Ortwein, in turn, said afterward that she could live with such a decision, although she still opposed the idea of dropping the aid for private-college attendees in the first place.

The episode captivated the audience invited to Nixon's Washington University address Wednesday, in which he reaffirmed his already announced plans for trimming state government to keep Missouri's budget balanced, as mandated by law, during tough economic times.

But the incident also underscored how Nixon has sought to make such painful cuts without showing -- or eliciting -- any high-profile rancor or temper.

The governor once known for his emotional outbursts, in private or public, is sticking to his budget-cutting plan and to his efforts to remain calm under fire, while quietly underscoring his concern for those affected by the trims.

For example: Three-quarters of the way through Wednesday's speech, Nixon announced that 1,000 more state jobs will be cut, in addition to 1,800 already slashed over the past year.

"I never make such decisions lightly, but they're necessary,'' the governor said. "We'll do everything we can to help those folks land on their feet."

No more detail was offered, as Nixon then segued into his already announced cost-cutting proposal to eliminate three state holidays for state workers. They include the birthday of Missouri's only U.S. president, Harry S Truman.

As he has in recent weeks, the Democratic governor avoided any criticisms of those in the Republican-controlled Legislature now grappling with the state budget and the $500 million in new cuts deemed necessary for the 2011 fiscal year that begins July 1.

By law, the Legislature must OK a budget by early May. And so far, some legislators have been cool -- or downright critical -- about Nixon's proposed trims.

Again, Nixon declined to reply, saying Wednesday that he saw no need to get into a dispute with "a few senators who've drank too much coffee or gotten too little sleep."

His aim, he continued, was to avoid to adding to legislators' stress.

Nixon and his staff have repeatedly underscored that he believes that the best way to resolve the state's issues, especially its economic woes, is to be as cooperative as possible with Republican leaders -- a tack he first adopted within weeks after winning the 2008 contest for governor.

Aside from cooler political temperatures, Nixon's approach also may have helped his poll numbers. The latest independent polls, while offering middling ratings for the governor, noted that his tallies were among the strongest in the country among governors in large states.

This week, Jefferson City has been abuzz over the informal deals struck between Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, and some state senators over how to reach the $500 million in cuts.

While the list of agreed-on trims continues to circulate, the budget director and the governor emphasized that changes may be made over the next month, and that nothing is set in stone.

Nixon noted, for example, that the Legislature is reviewing his earlier-announced proposals to combine some state departments and agencies. Some may be approved, and some may not, he said coolly.

He didn't offer a preference.

Even in his publicly laid-back mode, the governor said he did have three goals -- aside from a balanced budget -- for this legislative session, which ends May 14.

Those objectives are:

  • stiffening the state's laws against driving while intoxicated.
  • final passage of a measure mandating that insurance companies provide some coverage for children suffering from autism.
  • "Meaningful ethics reform,'' including bans on legislators serving as consultants for each other, and restoration of some sort of campaign-donation limits, removed by the Legislature in 2007.

On that last point, Nixon said he preferred the House ethics bill to the Senate version.
During Wednesday's news conference, the governor did get passionate on a couple points:

  • A former attorney general, he said he is sticking to his commitment to avoid much cost-cutting within the state's prison system, and that he will oppose any proposals to release or reduce the number of prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes.
  • Nixon said he thought it would be a waste of state tax dollars to pursue any sort of lawsuit against the federal government, as some states are doing, over the health-care bill that President Barack Obama recently signed into law.

Nixon added that his administration will instead look for ways to implement any federally mandated changes "efficiently and effectively."
He noted, too, that many of the most costly provisions -- such as adding people to state Medicaid rolls -- won't take effect until 2014.

In the meantime, Nixon said, there's no point in getting overwrought about it.

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.