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Nixon Focuses On Legacy From Ferguson As He Outlines Priorities

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon shakes hands with legislators as he exits the House of Represenatives after delivering the annual State of the State address at the state capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri on January 21, 2015.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon shakes hands with legislators as he exits the House of Represenatives after delivering the annual State of the State address at the state capitol.

A former basketball player himself, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon used the sport Wednesday to illustrate ways that the state can advance racial healing as it seeks to get beyond the months of protests prompted by last summer’s police shooting in Ferguson.

In Wednesday’s State of the State address, the governor recounted how Highway Patrol officers assigned to keep order pooled some of their own money to pay for a basketball net and new basketball. That generosity, Nixon said, later led to a pickup basketball game.

jay nixon 81814
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Gov. Jay Nixon in a file photo.

“Of course, it was more than just a friendly game of hoops,’’ Nixon said. “It was an opportunity to ease tensions, to foster trust, and to bring about the kind of change that is needed in communities all across America."

Nixon's detailed observations about Ferguson were unexpected, especially because the governor has been dogged by criticisms and controversy over his handling of Ferguson for months. Nixon was initially accused of being aloof and failing to grasp the gravity of the unrest. Then, he was seen as stumbling in his response.

House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, zeroed in on the governor's missteps in the official GOP response to Nixon's address. Diehl reaffirmed legislative plans to hold hearings into why more Missouri National Guard troops weren't deployed in the hours right after the grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Nixon, however, chose to focus on the broader issues generated by the shooting and its aftermath. "The events in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown sparked a national conversation about race and equality, education and economic opportunity, law enforcement and the courts,’’ the governor said.

He then went on: “The legacy of Ferguson will be determined by what we do next to foster healing and hope,  and the changes we make to strengthen all of our communities.”

The governor also listed, once again, the various proposed spending programs — including the creation of a new Office of Community Engagement — to target economic inequality and other Ferguson-related issues.

Nixon’s remarks about Ferguson also represented one of the few times during Wednesday’s address that Republicans joined Democrats in applause.

Concerns about Ferguson appeared to be the prime reason more police than usual were stationed throughout the state Capitol. And it may be why Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican who introduced the governor, first issued a stern warning to the general public in the House’s gallery that “we expect that all visitors will deport themselves as guests.”

There were no disruptions during the governor’s 50-minute address.

Budget Proposal Calls For Small Increase

Nixon’s comments about Ferguson arguably overshadowed the downbeat message he presented when it comes to the state’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The governor’s proposed budget can be boiled down to one word: modest.

Unlike earlier proposed budgets, the governor outlined no grand proposals for new state programs or expansions. No huge increases are sought in spending for public education. 

The one exception was yet another pitch to a hostile General Assembly to reconsider its opposition to expanding the state’s Medicaid program. Failure to do so, Nixon said, already has cost the state $4 billion in federal money that the state so far has rejected.

His biggest pitch is to persuade legislators to allocate bond money — actually, not part of the budget proposal — to build a new state home for elderly veterans. The facility is needed to address a 2,000-veteran waiting list, the governor said.

State budget director Linda Luebbering told reporters that the proposed budget reflects the reality of lower fiscal expectations, even if the state has seen 40,000 new jobs — and lower unemployment to 5.4 percent — since the last time Nixon addressed legislators with his 2014 State of the State address.

Said the governor during his address: “We’ve just closed out the best year for job growth in 17 years.”

But so far, more jobs hasn’t translated into much more tax money into state coffers.

Missouri Budget Basics:

  • The proposed FY2016 budget estimates a net general-revenue collection of $8.67 billion. That’s up about 3.6 percent from the $8.37 billion estimated for the current fiscal year.
  • General revenue represents only about one-third of the overall budget, but is the chief fiscal pot for discretionary state spending.
  • Nixon is proposing general-revenue spending of about $8.82 billion. That’s about $200 million more than the spending expected for the current fiscal year.
  • Nixon’s proposal calls for cutting 217 state jobs, most of them already vacant. Since 2009, he has cut 5,009 jobs from the state payroll.

Renewed Appeals For Ethics Reform, Medicaid Expansion

Since Nixon took office in 2009, he has devoted part of almost every State of the State address to beseech legislators to:

  • Restore the state’s now-scuttled campaign donation limits.
  • Impose more restrictions on legislators and lobbyists, such as a ban on gifts and curbs on the revolving door that now results in many legislators becoming lobbyists right after they leave office.
  • Expand the state’s Medicaid program, as sought by the federal Affordable Care Act.

And this year’s State of the State address was no different.
The governor was particularly passionate about expanding Medicaid to about 300,000 more Missourians, most of them in low-wage jobs that don’t offer health insurance.

Nixon pointed out that “13,000 of them are veterans’’ while another 50,000 are “people struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.”

In appealing to his largely Republican audience — many of them grim-faced during his remarks — Nixon took a different approach than in the past as he highlighted the economic costs to the state. The governor recounted how a hospital executive in southwest Missouri said the hospital was shifting dozens of jobs to neighboring Arkansas because that state — also run by Republicans — has expanded Medicaid.

Nixon quoted the executive as observing, “I fear Missouri will never recover the ground it now is losing statewide as a result of political posturing’’ by Republicans refusing to expand Medicaid.

Luebbering sought to back up that argument by circulating a chart showing how much general-revenue money Missouri could have saved if it expanded Medicaid. That’s because some of the state’s existing Medicaid spending, using state dollars, would be covered by federal money if the program were expanded.

Gov. Jay Nixon's State of the State address.

GOP Against Medicaid Expansion, For More School Choice

Incoming House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
John Diehl

House Speaker Diehl made clear in his official Republican response that Medicaid expansion continued to be a non-starter for the General Assembly’s Republican majority.

The GOP has cited, in part, the increased state spending that would be required by 2023, when Missouri would have to pick up 10 percent of the expansion’s costs — an estimated $200 million a year. (The state budget office says that cost would be covered by savings of $312 million of year because of the aforementioned cost-shifting.)

Diehl emphasized his approach to governing:

  • “As Republicans, we will continue to keep government out of our lives and out of our way.”
  • “We have a leadership problem and we have a failure on the part of government institutions.”
  • “As legislators, we need to focus on education and economic opportunities.”

The last point appeared aimed, in part, at Republican ire at Nixon for continuing to withhold more than $400 million allocated by legislators in the current budget. The governor has maintained that the General Assembly called for more spending than the state can afford.

John Diehl's Republican Response to the State of the State address.

Miscellaneous Observations And Surprises

  • Nixon appeared to ignore the still unresolved issue of student transfers from unaccredited school districts to nearby accredited districts. Transfers from the Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts in St. Louis County have been costly to the districts. Nixon vetoed last session’s legislative solution, which included allowing students to transfer to private schools.
  • The governor called for legislators to consider toll roads along parts of Interstate 70 to help pay for needed improvements.
  • He appeared to endorse an increase in Missouri’s gasoline tax, now among the nation’s lowest.
  • In one of the liveliest parts of the speech, the governor proudly resurrected his victory in 2010 in keeping Ford Motor Co. in the Kansas City area instead of moving elsewhere.
  • Nixon promised to block efforts in other states – from North Dakota to Kansas – to divert more water from the Missouri River, which provides much of Missouri’s water for “drinking, farming and industry.”  
  • Two words were not uttered:  “stadium’’ and “Rams.” Although Nixon set up a special task force to examine ways to keep the Rams in St. Louis, he ignored the matter in his speech.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.