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Missouri House probes of former Nixon officials could overshadow new session

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s plan called for a meeting this week with legislators to discuss Medicaid expansion as part of an apparent focus on health care as the General Assembly prepares to go back into session in six weeks.

The meeting now appears dead, the casualty of a dispute between the governor and two legislative committees over who would control the proceedings.

In its wake, some Republican legislative leaders – notably House Speaker Tim Jones – are preparing to launch into a new wave of investigations into the Democrat governor’s administration. In particular, Jones is looking at the allegations of discrimination and misbehavior leveled at two former heads of the state departments of labor and agriculture.

Nixon, who was critical of a similar department-director controversy during Gov. Matt Blunt’s tenure, declined in a recent interview to discuss either matter potentially troubling his administration.

“We’re focused on moving forward,” the governor told the Beacon during a recent question-answer session with St. Louis reporters. “We should be looking through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”

Jones counters that the past affects the future: “I’m asking the current Government Accountability Committee, chaired by (Rep.) Jay Barnes, to look into a separate issue regarding a whole mess of problems with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor.’’

The committee has been asked “to look into the process and procedures by which the department heads are selected and chosen to see whether or not there’s been a proper vetting process,” Jones continued. “It’s very disturbing to me that in the last year,  Gov. Nixon has just blown through an enormous number of directors.”

Jones also has set up a special committee to look in the circumstances surrounding the departure of Department of Agriculture chief Jon Hagler, who was particularly close to Nixon. Jones cites the surprise nature of Hagler’s exit, plus some of the salacious accusations.

Jones took note of Nixon'searlier criticisms during the 2007 flap involving then-Department of Agriculture chief Fred Ferrell.  "He should b e careful of the glass house he’s living in on this," Jones said.

EEOC to examine Backer's accusations

The Department of Labor controversy may become more of a headache for the governor because the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has agreed to look at the formal complaint, which some expect to end up in court.

The complaint was filed by Gracia Backer, a former legislator and one-time ally of Nixon. She headed the state’s Division of Employment Security until she was let go in March after she says she approached top Nixon aides with allegations against her boss, then-Labor Department chief Larry Rebman.

“I was the whistleblower,’’ said Backer, who alleges that she and other older women in the department’s management were targeted by Redman. He subsequently was moved by the administration into a post as an administrative law judge, with a salary of more than $100,000 a year. One of the women ousted by Redman has since been reinstated.

Backer declined a lower-level job in the Missouri Lottery Commission that the administration offered her.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s staff declined to comment on reports from sources that the office has begun to interview some of the people listed in Backer’s lengthy complaint as corroborating her account.  A spokeswoman cited potential litigation.

Backer’s complaint includes potentially damaging emails sent by Rebman, who has declined to talk to reporters.

Although Nixon's comments have been brief, his staff did send out a recent release emphasizing that “this administration has always sought, and will continue to seek, to foster a highly qualified state workforce that is not only professional in demeanor and inclusive in its composition, but also one that is productive, accountable and consistently meets the high standards taxpayers expect and deserve.”

Battle over 'leverage' as legislators return to Capitol

Such probes could overshadow any other matters during the opening weeks of the General Assembly’s next session. That raises the prospect of a repeat of this year’s legislative session, which became engulfed for weeks in a controversy over the Department of Revenue’s handling of drivers licenses and concealed-carry gun permits.

Legislators will begin prefiling bills on Dec. 1.

In a broad sense, the governor and legislators may now be jockeying over more than Medicaid and departed department heads, said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“This is a battle over leverage,’’ Robertson said. At stake, he said, was who would be in a stronger political position – Nixon or the Missouri House -- when the General Assembly returns in January.

For the moment, said Robertson, the two sides “are fighting over the agenda.”

“What Nixon wants to do is focus on some policy issues that are important to him,” Robertson said. “That’s what governors always do. It doesn’t matter what party they’re members of.

“And, for the House speaker, in particular, the issue is to gain a little bit of advantage to give the House more leverage in dealing both with the Senate, but in particular with Nixon,” Robertson said, “because Nixon was able to stymie some of the House’s initiatives (last session) with his veto.”

Robertson was referring, among other things, to Nixon’s successful veto of the tax-cut bill, known as SB253, and measures aimed at expanding gun rights. The tax cut bill died in the House in September when Jones’ camp failed to assemble enough votes to override the governor’s action.

Battle lines over Medicaid

But Jones declined to discuss the past, preferring instead to emphasize his plans for the coming session. Jones, who is considering a bid for statewide office in 2016, said he wants to focus on jobs, taxes and a "right-to-work" proposal, which affects union rights.

Jones reaffirmed his opposition to any expansion of Medicaid, as proposed under the federal Affordable Care Act, saying the state's existing program needs to tackle "waste, fraud and abuse."

Jones accused Nixon of overreacting to the legislative framework proposed for this week's now-scuttled meeting on Medicaid and blamed the governor for the demise of any talks.

The governor has yet to go into detail about his proposals for the coming legislative session, which are traditionally outlined during his annual State of the State address in January. Nixon’s latest trips have centered on new biotech jobs and education.

The governor may have more bipartisan success on another front, as he seeks to galvanize legislative support quickly to assemble incentives aimed at encouraging Boeing Co. to move the manufacture of its new commercial aircraft, the 777X, to Missouri.

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.