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Nixon focuses on education, jobs, campaign spending

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2012 - While Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed state budget is primarily about austerity, his words Tuesday night were all about hope -- as he painted a portrait of a state in a stronger economic position than many of its neighbors and the nation as a whole.

The governor cited his administration's "granite foundation of fiscal discipline'' and the resiliency of Missouri's own people as among the reasons Missouri has not faced state government debt and the state's unemployment rate is at a three-year low.

"Balancing our budget. Holding the line on taxes. Maintaining a spotless Triple-A credit rating. These are all signs that Missouri is headed in the right direction," Nixon said in his annual hour-long State of the State address before state legislators gathered in the ornate chamber of the Missouri House.

"You know what that says about us here in Missouri?" he continued, igniting applause. "We know how to manage our money -- better than our neighboring states and much better than Washington. "

While hitting his usual themes of less spending and more jobs, the governor -- who is seeking re-election this fall -- also highlighted where he'd like to see some changes.

Nixon is proposing a slight increase in state spending for public schools, while also seeking more accountability for "charter schools" -- often privately run operations that receive state dollars.

He also pledged his support for expanding access to the state's A-plus scholarships for higher education, while also calling for the state's public colleges and universities to run "leaner, more efficient operations."

That last point may not be optional. Right before Nixon took to the podium, his budget office released a proposed budget for the next fiscal year that calls for an $89 million cut in the state's spending for higher education. It's the second largest trim in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. 

Next budget relies on savings, 800 fewer workers

The proposed reduction comes soon after Missouri's public colleges and universities, and some of their legislative allies, balked at Nixon's idea -- now scuttled -- of loaning money to the cash-strapped state.

The biggest reduction in the proposed budget is $191.7 million in unspecified "additional efficiencies in the Medicaid program,'' according to the state budget office, which also emphasized "no change in eligibility or covered services."

Budget director Linda Luebbering said in a telephone interview that the planned Medicaid savings involve such items as lower reimbursement rates for managed care (saving $37 million), expanding the use of generic drugs (saving $30 million), increasing pharmaceutical rebates ($52 million) and $30 million in hospital savings -- the latter hinging on more federal dollars.

Overall, the state's budget was drawn up to reflect the loss of at least $500 million in federal stimulus aid since the economy nose-dived at the end of 2008.

The FY2013 budget assumes a growth of 3.9 percent in state revenue, which Luebbering said was achievable, as long as current economic trends continue.

The proposed budget also cuts out 816 state jobs, although Luebbering said many already were unfilled.

The new budget also is based on tighter state fiscal controls, including $64.3 million saved via "additional debt collections and revenue efficiencies."

The budget also is relying on the General Assembly's action to approve a "tax amnesty plan,'' which died last session, that Nixon's budget office predicts could bring in $51.8 million in back taxes. Such income, however, would be a one-time addition to the state budget.

Governor cites Joplin as inspiration

Nixon, however, chose in his speech to deal primarily with broader themems as he sought to highlight state efforts to attract jobs, retain businesses and educate young people.

The governor touched on many of the same topics he has emphasized in a recent tour of the state to promote a new effort, Missouri Works, aimed at encouraging the types of businesses deemed as the best sources of good-paying jobs and the job-training programs that can help attract such employment.

He highlighted various economic successes, such as the new jobs at the General Motors and Ford auto-manufacturing plants in the state.

The governor also reaffirmed his commitment to improve job opportunities for returning military veterans and to promote public safety.

Nixon shifted away from his usual fiscal focus on only a few points.

For example, he brought up a long-standing issue that he long has embraced but has rarely mentioned of late: reinstating Missouri's campaign-donation limits, which were eliminated by the General Assembly and his predecessor, Gov. Matt Blunt, in 2007.

"When one person with an ax to grind can make an unlimited contribution to advance a narrow agenda, when lobbyists for powerful interests can tip the balance of an election, the very foundations of our democracy are at risk," Nixon said.

"Unlimited contributions are overriding the will of the people and undermining the principle of free and fair elections. Missouri needs strict limits on campaign contributions. This is the year to get it done."

Nixon framed his general "get it done'' approach within the context of the state's biggest tragedy of 2011 -- the deadly tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, killing 161 people and destroying about half of the city.

He began his address by focusing on the resiliency of survivors like Quinton Anderson, a high school senior who lost both of his parents in the tornado. Anderson, said the governor, "was flung through the air and found blocks away -- face-down in a ditch with a fractured skull, a shattered spine, his left leg torn to shreds."

After leaving the hospital, Nixon continued, Anderson talked about the dramatic change in his outlook. " 'I used to just take each day like it was given to me. But it's not. It's a gift,' " the governor quoted Anderson as saying. " 'You've gotta pray for the next one. Don't give up hope. Always pray to get stronger each day.' "

Anderson, by the way, was among several notables singled out in the speech who also had been invited to sit in the gallery during the governor's address.

Nixon observed in his conclusion that "there's a lot of uncertainty in this life. We can't control the weather. We can't always see what tomorrow will bring; but one thing is clear: Through storms and floods and hard times, the good people of Missouri never give up or give in. Even in our darkest hours, the spirit will prevail. And when people of good faith and good will work together; nothing can stop us."

Republican response faults Nixon's approach

In the GOP response to the governor's speech taped before the speech, House Majority Leader Tim Jones of Eureka and Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer of Columbia chastised Nixon's policies on economic development and education funding.

Jones, who is slated to be the next House speaker in 2013, accused Nixon of remaining "on the sidelines, as a spectator, every time we need him to lead.

"At a time when our economy is stagnating and the unemployment rate remains unacceptably high, Missourians deserve far better," Jones said. "Tonight, 250,000 Missourians cannot find a job, many more are underemployed and countless others struggle to make ends meet. Employers are fleeing Missouri to states like Kansas and Tennessee -- taking jobs and precious revenue with them."

Jones also heaped criticism on Nixon for touting economic development plans that didn't always come through, such as the demise of the proposed Mamtek artificial-sweetener plant in Moberly, Mo.

He added, "It's not enough to fly around the state on the taxpayer dime and promise jobs -- you need to make sure those jobs are actually created. We are determined to reset the priorities of government so it serves the taxpayers first. We plan to improve the education of our children -- especially those in failing schools." 

Schaefer said Missouri schools have received "less and less (state) money for classrooms, for transportation, for technology and for creating future opportunity.

"The governor has furthered this trend through withholds and reductions of the General Assembly's increases for public education," Schaefer said. "When we can't afford buses to get our children to school and when we continue to cause dramatic increases in the price of earning a college or technical degree, it's time to re-evaluate ourpriorities."

Experts note Nixon's focus on 'general principles'

After the speech, Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the governor's address "shows why Missouri voters tend to approve of his handling of the governorship, despite the poor economy that has badly damaged public support for governors in so many other states. It was optimistic, practical, down-to-earth and middle of the road.

"Like many such speeches, this speech presented several clear ideas for government action but only very general principles for cutting spending," Robertson continued, noting that "spending cuts will be the central issue of this legislative session."

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, offered a similar assessment.

"He painted with broad strokes," Connor said. "Opening and closing with Joplin seemed to work thematically judging by the applause."

"As he has in the past, Nixon spoke of bipartisanship; what 'we' have accomplished and what 'we' can do," Connor continued, noting that the governor "made at least three pointed references" that Missouri is better than Washington.

Most of Nixon's chief economic points "could be broadly agreed upon," the professor said, "but the devil is always in the details; especially with a $500 million shortfall."