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In first State of State, Greitens outlines ambitious agenda

Gov. Eric Greitens speaks during his first State of the State address in Jefferson City.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Eric Greitens speaks during his first State of the State address in Jefferson City.

Gov. Eric Greitens used his first State of the State address to offer up a fairly conservative policy agenda, a slate of proposals that will likely find favor with Republicans who dominate the Missouri General Assembly.

“This is a big place, with a powerful purpose, and it has too often been consumed by small goals and petty politics,” Greitens said. “So tonight, I come bearing a simple message from the people of Missouri: They want a government that fights for them, and I come as an outsider ready to lead that fight.”

During his speech Tuesday night, Greitens, a Republican, affirmed his strong support for the ideas and policies that he championed during his successful gubernatorial campaign: He promised to curtail lobbyist freebies; support a constitutional amendment to apply term limits to statewide officials; and strengthen penalties for anyone who attacks a law enforcement officer. 

Missoouri Gov. Eric Greitens is seen through the chamber doors, delivering his first State of the State speech to the Missouri Legislature. (Jan. 17. 2017)
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is seen Tuesday through the chamber doors, delivering his first State of the State speech to the Missouri Legislature.

His biggest theme, though, was shifting the state’s strategy for attracting businesses and jobs. Many of the proposals have been Republican priorities for decades.  

Perhaps the most significant is “right to work,” which would bar unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues.

“The people have sent us a message: We must do everything in our power to put people back to work in good, high-paying jobs,” Greitens said. “That’s why we must join 27 other states and sign right to work.”

Greitens didn’t stop there: He also expressed support for clamping down on prevailing wages, which often provide higher pay for public projects. He also promised to support curbs on lawsuits, which proponents usually dub “tort reform.”

“We’re the place where the nastiest lawyers come to do work so dirty and engage in lawsuits so murky, they wouldn’t pass muster anywhere else. What does this do? It scares away businesses. It means fewer jobs and smaller paychecks,” Greitens said. “The companies intimidated by this shady practice have customers here. They could make even more money here. But they’re afraid to expand their business here.”

Public safety emphasized

The State of the State address typically features a roll out of the governor’s budget. That didn’t happen this year; Greitens is planning to release that document in February. He announced nearly $146 million worth of withholds on Monday, adding that the 2018 budget will be challenging.  

Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Missouri Governor Eric Greitens is congratulated by legislators after delivering his first State of the State speech to the Missouri Legislature in the State Capitol in Jefferson City.

Greitens did devote a significant segment of his speech to public safety, an area that’s typically been the purview of municipal and county governments.

In addition to setting up a “blue alert” to spread public awareness when a first responder is shot or injured, Greitens also emphasized a desire to reduce recidivism – and make sure people getting out of prisons are able to find jobs.

“If somebody gets out of prison, we want them to go to work. We want them to pay their fair share in taxes. We want them to take care of their kids. We want them to set a good example,” Greitens said. “And the last thing we want is somebody coming out of prison and committing another crime, which hurts another family and starts that same bad cycle all over again.”

“We need to do different,” he added. “People who are in prison should have a clear plan—from the day they enter—about what direction their lives will take the day they leave.”

Greitens also said he wanted to “make sure that all of our officers have the training, resources, and support they need both to protect themselves and to build strong relationships in their communities.”

“Here’s what we have to do together: make this the greatest state in America to be a law enforcement officer, firefighter or first responder,” Greitens said. “And we need to make this a state where every citizen feels that they, too, are safe and protected.”

Greitens backs tax credit overhaul

Greitens has an almost unprecedented opportunity to get his agenda passed – if his Republican counterparts in the legislature agree with him. Never before has a GOP governor come into office with so many Republicans in the General Assembly. 

From left: Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Attorney General Josh Hawley, Treasurer Eric Schmitt and Auditor Nicole Galloway applaud during Greitens' speech.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Attorney General Josh Hawley, Treasurer Eric Schmitt and Auditor Nicole Galloway applaud during Greitens' speech.

But that doesn’t mean all of Greitens’ priorities will be a slam dunk.

For instance: Greitens backed paring down the state’s tax credits. His predecessor, former Gov. Jay Nixon, supported paring down popular incentives like historic and low-income housing tax credits. But those efforts were bogged down in the early 2010s during a failed special session.

During his speech, though, Greitens expressed a willingness to give a tax credit overhaul another try.

“If special interest tax credits made for a prosperous economy, Missouri would be thriving. What our people want is a tax structure that is simple, fair to everyone and low. But instead we have a tax structure that is complex, corrupt and high,” Greitens said. “Together, with a team of outsiders and legislators, we are going to do a thorough, end-to-end audit of our tax credit system — and create a tax code that works not to benefit privileged insiders but instead is fair to all.”

Additionally, Greitens threw his support behind “education savings accounts” for students with special needs. That program would allow parents of students to pay for K-12 expenses – including private school tuition.(One snag with this particular proposal could be the Missouri Constitution, which bars state money going to private schools.)

“With education savings accounts, parents are able to use their fair share of state education money in a way that fits with what their kids need,” Greitens said. “Arizona was the first state in the country to try these accounts, and the program has been a success. Parents are much happier with their children’s educations, and children are able to get the kind of education that meets their needs.”

Greitens also reiterated his support for expanding a “one to one” buffer period before lawmakers can become lobbyists. For instance: If somebody was in office for eight years, that person would have to wait eight years to lobby. That proposal isn’t likely to gain traction in the legislature.

“This is a simple, sensible proposal, and I’m committed to working with you to close the revolving door,” he said.

GOP jubilant, Democrats skeptical

Perhaps unsurprisingly, reaction to Greitens’ speech split along party lines. 

Greitens is flanked by his security entourage before making his 2017 State of the State speech.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Greitens is flanked by his security entourage before making his 2017 State of the State speech.

For instance, Missouri Republican Party Chairman Todd Graves said Greitens “promised Missourians he would take our state in a new direction -- and tonight he delivered on that promise.”

"Missouri now has a governor who isn't afraid to make tough decisions as he forges the path to a balanced budget, economic prosperity for businesses and families and strong support for our law enforcement officers,” Graves said.

House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick said Greitens’ speech was a “breath of fresh air,” especially since  Nixon often stymied Republican priorities.

“To be honest with you, it seemed like such a far-fetched idea to pass right to work,” said Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob. “Nixon talked about tax credits, but I’m hopeful we’ll actually gets some leadership on that. … But it’s just exciting. The people have given us a unique opportunity with the people they put in office. And I think we’re going to get some neat things done.”

Democrats, though, were less enthused about elements of Greitens’ agenda – including an embrace of right to work.

“Right-to-work simply means forcing folks to-work for less: Less money. Less health coverage. And less opportunity for workers and their families,” said Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, in the Democratic response to Greitens’ speech. “This legislation divides Missouri and distracts lawmakers from more important tasks like balancing the budget, funding our schools and ensuring safe communities across the state.”

State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said she was dismayed that budgetary issues weren’t a priority of Greitens’ speech, especially since tough decisions likely lay ahead.

“His recent cuts that included higher education and K-12 transportation – those are problematic from my perspective,” she said. “We didn’t hear about those tonight.”

State Rep. Peter Merideth said he was disappointed that Greitens didn’t spend much time talking about overhauling the state’s criminal justice system. But the St. Louis Democrat isn’t giving up hope.

“The fact is his running as an outsider means we can actually predict a little less what he is going to support,” said Merideth, D-St. Louis. “And I’m hopeful that criminal justice issues are something he’s going to listen to. I even heard him mention that everyone deserves a right to reasonable representation and thought maybe he’s more interested in funding public defenders’ offices. It’s a conversation we should have.”

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