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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Zweifel: Ferguson relief efforts showcase need for 'flexible' state government

State Treasurer Clint Zweifel speaks to the St. Louis Regional Chamber on Friday, March 13, 2015.
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
State Treasurer Clint Zweifel speaks to the St. Louis Regional Chamber on Friday, March 13, 2015.

Soon after Michael Brown’s shooting death sparked riots and protests that jolted businesses in and around Ferguson, state Treasurer Clint Zweifel decided to get the lay of the land.

Speaking to the St. Louis Regional Chamber, Zweifel said he didn’t look to consultants or political figures for help. Nor did try to figure out solutions from a distance.

“We had a pretty simple idea: We’d go out. Knock on doors of small businesses and really just stop and listen,” Zweifel told the chamber on Friday. “It’s important to remember that those were listening sessions that weren’t happening in this room or another board room somewhere in St. Louis. They were happening behind cash registers while they were trying to clean up and while they were trying to serve customers.”

What came from those face-to-face discussions was the Small Business Relief Program, a public-private partnership that’s given out roughly $700,000 to businesses in Ferguson, Dellwood and St. Louis. It’s one of several funds to help businesses that suffered damage from vandalism, arson and looting over the past few months.

“By no means does that loan fund make all of our civic and regional problems go away. It just touched a small part,” Zweifel said. “But it does bring out some really important lessons to consider when making government and being part of something bigger than just ourselves.”

During his speech, Zweifel said the creation of the no-interest loan program demonstrated that state government “has to be more flexible” and “a little less flat-footed when it comes to decision-making.”

“We actually have to inject more human decision-making,” Zweifel said. “When we elect people, they have to be in a position where they’re actually making human judgments to get things done. Not every problem, not every opportunity, not every solution that we have is going to fall into a box that’s pre-prescribed.

“So often in state government, one of the traps that we fall into is that we don’t actually have folks who are making decision,” he added. “That flexibility is the key for us to compete.”

A native of Hazelwood, Zweifel said the last seven months have been “a painful experience for all St. Louisans,” but also an opportunity to have an “open honest conversation” that makes St. Louis "stronger.” 

In response to a question about whether the relief program was going to be enough to help the North County businesses, Zweifel said the fund should be used  as a touchstone for larger conversations about educational funding and disparities.

It's clear, Zweifel said after his speech, that "we have a long way to go to build the inclusivity that we need in this region."

Missouri Promise push

Zweifel used some of his address to the chamber to promote a college tuition plan called “Missouri Promise.”

It works like this: If somebody keeps a certain grade point average in high school and college and performs community service, the state will pay tuition and fees for a Missouri college or university. Both Zweifel and Gov. Jay Nixon have been talking about the plan since they campaigned for their respective offices in 2008.

In his speech, Zweifel said that the program would help alleviate the debt load for both students and parents. He said it was “a promise to students who are going to work hard and get good grades and have given the time, but may not have the funds to get the degree that they need.”

“And [it’s] a promise to employers, especially, that Missouri recognizes the need for a high-quality workforce and is willing to make the long-term investments necessary to provide it,” Zweifel said.

At last week’s Democrat Days in Hannibal, Attorney General Chris Koster embraced Zweifel’s proposal – and suggested raising the state’s cigarette tax to pay for it. When asked by an audience member about how the program would be funded, Zweifel said: “It’s important that we don’t get into a situation where we’re so busy talking about how to fund something before we talk about and really embrace the idea itself.

“If you work hard, you basically should have a chance at post-secondary education,” Zweifel said. “We spend $110 million on scholarship aid in the state of Missouri. We are now the sixth lowest state in the nation in terms of higher education spending. We are the lowest state by far around all surrounding states in terms of per-capita higher education spending.”

Keeping his day job

Term limits bar Zweifel from running for a third term as treasurer. And that’s naturally sparked speculation about his political future. 

Former state Auditor Tom Schweich speaks at his victory party in Clayton last November. Nixon will select somebody to serve out the remainder of Schweich's term, which runs through the end of 2018.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
The late auditor, Tom Schweich (pictured here at his victory party), was a big fan of the Rolling Stones, said Treasurer Clint Zweifel.

Would Nixon appoint Zweifel to replace former state Auditor Tom Schweich? That would in turn give the governor a chance to appoint a new treasurer.

But Zweifel on Friday directly and unambiguously put the kibosh on that idea. When asked if he had an interest in being auditor, he replied “no.” And when asked if he’d been approached about being appointed, he once again said “no.”

“I’m happy being treasurer and will be serving until 2016,” he said.

Zweifel paid tribute to Schweich at the beginning of his speech to Chamber.  He called him a “fiercely independent auditor who had an opinion about nearly every part of state government – including my own office.” (Schweich gave the treasurer’s office an excellent rating in 2012, which became a point of pride during Zweifel’s re-election campaign.)

Zweifel also recounted how Schweich told him about how much he had enjoyed a Rolling Stones concert. Zweifel told Schweich that he also liked the classic rock band, but, said Zweifel, "I don't think he believed me because I couldn't name all of my favorite albums" or "what years they were released."

On a more serious note, he added it was important to reach out to Schweich’s family and friends in the weeks and months ahead. “It’s often those times when things die down that it’s hardest for the family,” Zweifel said.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.