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In State of the State, Nixon sounds optimistic note in tough economic times

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2011 - Tempering optimism with realism before a legislature dominated by Republicans, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said Wednesday night that both parties must work together to take advantage of a brightening economic picture.

In his State of the State address, the governor stressed several times that his administration is "fighting every day for every job" that he can bring to the state. But at the same time, his administration released budget recommendations that would result in 860 fewer jobs in Missouri's state government, hundreds of millions of dollars less for education and other cuts needed to bring in the balanced budget required by the state constitution. The budget would total $23.1 billion, according to figures released as the governor spoke.

Acknowledging that "times are tough," Nixon said that his administration is working to make sure that state government uses every dollar as efficiently as possible. He stressed investments that will help Missouri attract and retain jobs and will help state residents make sure they have the training needed to hold them.

He also expressed the hope that despite partisan differences, everyone in state government can work together to make sure the put the needs of Missourians first.

"We all know the folks in this room have differences of opinion," he said toward the end of his speech. "And we all know we'll have some disagreements. But it's worth remembering that we all serve the people of Missouri. All of your constituents are my constituents, and the common good is our common goal."

Noting that "there are signs that our economy is beginning to turn the corner," Nixon said that he still "won't be satisfied until all Missourians can provide for their families.

"How will we do it? By fighting hard every day for every job. By making government smarter and more efficient. By investing in strong communities to attract and keep good jobs, and by balancing our budget without raising taxes."

Comparing Missouri's situation with that of other states -- most pointedly Illinois, which just raised personal and corporate income taxes -- Nixon said cuts included in his budget recommendations for the next fiscal year would bring to more than $1.8 billion the amount of reductions in government spending since he took office two years ago.

To move forward, the governor laid out a program with several recommendations:

  • Consolidating six current business incentive programs into one, which will require companies to provide good-paying jobs and give workers access to health care. "For the first time," he said, "we'll give an extra bump to established Missouri companies and offer added incentives to small business owners.
  • Combining three worker-training programs into one and tying it with the existing Compete Missouri program.
  • Adding $5 million for job training that will give Missouri businesses more resources to recruit and retain a highly skilled workforce.

He also talked about the jobs that he said would come from the program announced last year that could ease the way for construction of a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County. Discussing the many construction trades that would benefit from the plant, Nixon said:
"They built Callaway One. And in the not-too-distant future, they will build Callaway Two."

He pledged that K-12 education in Missouri would receive "stable, even funding." His budget summary shows that while money for education from general revenue would rise slightly, federal funds would drop, resulting in a loss of more than $200 million for elementary and secondary schools.

Similarly, the summary calls for total funding for higher education to drop by more than $100 million, at the same time that Nixon called for the percentage of Missourians who have college degrees -- currently 35 percent -- to rise to 60 percent. He acknowledged that the era of holding tuition steady, as it has been for the past two years, is likely to end, but "even if some schools impose modest tuition increase next year, we'll have protected Missouri families from the sharp tuition spikes seen in other states."

He challenged the lawmakers to pass two specific proposals.

First, he wants them to extend the Missouri Rx program, which is set to expire this summer, so that more than 200,000 Missourians can receive help paying for their prescription drugs. "Nobody should be forced to choose between paying for medicine and putting food on the table," Nixon said. "Nobody."

Second, he called for passage of ethics reform because "the people of Missouri need to know that their elected representatives are working in the public interest, and not for personal gain.

"Right now, anyone can write a check for any amount of money and tip the balance of an election. That is corrosive to our democracy. We need to set strict limits on campaign contributions that are undermining the sovereignty of the people and subverting the fundamental principle of free and fair elections."

The inclusion of ethics reform surprised political science professor George Connor of Missouri State University, noting a split between some leaders in the Republican Party on the issue.

"I think ethics reform is probably dead," he said in an interview after the speech. "I don't think the Republican leadership in the House or Senate can get enough support behind one package. I'm not entirely convinced that an ethics package will come, but it gives the governor good talking points."

Overall, Connor said the speech was "all warm and fuzzy" in many places, with Nixon touching on a lot of positives, and he said the governor seemed more relaxed in his demeanor than in past addresses.

On one issue where the governor challenged lawmakers to give his plan a fair hearing -- tax credits -- Connor said he is awaiting more details of precisely what he is proposing.

"The big tension is that we give money away in the short term, in terms of tax incentives to get companies to expand in Missouri, in hopes that people will come here, get jobs, pay taxes and buy homes," he said. "But we have this huge deficit. I was waiting for him to give a little more detail but got nothing."

That lack of specificity carried over into other areas as well, Connor noted.

"I really didn't hear much in the way of proposed cuts," he said. "He talked about what he had done over the past two years, but I think it was a bit light on specific details.

"That's not unusual. I did notice that he really wanted to keep it optimistic. We've had a bad 12 months. He wanted to focus on turning the corner. How fast we're going to turn that corner is still up in the air."

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who gave the Republican response and is widely expected to run against Nixon next year, took a more combative tone. He called on Democrats to join him in challenging the federal health-care law, and he noted that with the large majority Republicans hold in the Legislature, they also have an enormous responsibility.

He called on Nixon to stop what he called "showboating and grandstanding" and get down to serious governing.

"The time for fancy speeches is over," he said. "You see: Gov. Nixon has been AWOL on the issues that matter most to you and your family."

Saying the governor should not be a spectator in solving the state's problems, Kinder concluded:

"I ask that every elected official, Republican and Democrat, to follow the example set by so many resilient Missourians across this state, who are determined to use this opportunity to build a brighter, more prosperous future for their families, their communities, and their state -- a future brimming with opportunity and filled with hope."

State Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, the Senate majority leader, criticized Nixon's budget figures, saying that "in many ways, he's playing a shell game with us with some of these numbers."

For example, he said that Nixon planned to raise $20 million from a tax amnesty plan, but "you never get the kind of collections in taxes that you think you will." He said projected savings from refinancing the state debt is also likely to fall short.

Mayer also criticized the governor's job proposals as not being bold enough.

"There's nothing new and innovative that will bring much in job creation," he said. "Let's face it. Unemployment is still 9.5 percent here in Missouri, and it's been right around there for a long time now. Where was the governor in the past two years when we needed job creation?"

Mayer, Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, and state Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake, all noted Nixon's bipartisan approach, though they acknowledged that as lawmakers get deeper into their work, the tone could get less cordial.

Tilley said that is particularly likely to happen when broad proposals are filled in with detail that was lacking in Wednesday night's speech.

"Where we think the governor is right," Tilley said, "we look forward to working with him to help accomplish his goals, and where we think he's off track, we'll tell him we think he is going in the wrong direction."

Green noted that partisanship often deepens as the language of election campaigns fades away.

"Everyone wants to be bipartisan when they are running for office," he said, but once they get into office, partisanship starts.

"When you get elected and start a new session, you try not to be cynical. You try to be optimistic; I just hope the optimism can prevail. Basically, people are hurting. The rhetoric gets old."

If the bipartisan spirit does hold, Connor thinks the fact that Nixon ended his speech by quoting former Sen. Christopher S. Bond may have something to do with it.

Recalling words from last year's farewell speech on the floor of the Senate, Nixon quoted Bond as saying:

"In a world today, where enemies are real ... it is important to remember there is a lot of real estate between a political opponents and a true enemy. There will be issues where people of good conscience cannot come together. But never let what cannot be done interfere with what can be done."

To Connor, the fact that Nixon chose the Republican Bond to quote instead of Harry Truman or Franklin Roosevelt sent a signal "that we all serve the great state of Missouri.

"That was an exceptionally strong ending. To cite Christopher Bond was ending on right note of bipartisanship."

Contact Beacon staff writer Dale Singer.

Dale Singer Beacon staff

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.