Fear and Waiting in Jefferson City: 5 loose ends from first week of Missouri legislature
When lawmakers gaveled themselves back into session on Jan. 3, most people focused on tension between Gov. Eric Greitens and the Missouri Senate — or how the GOP-controlled legislature may struggle to solve big policy problems over the next few months.
But for a brief moment on Thursday, legislators from both parties took a break from the Jefferson City rigor to shower praise on former Gov. Jay Nixon.
Nixon, no glasses
Dozens of friends, family, former staffers and even political detractors crammed into a Senate hearing room to view Nixon’s portrait. It features Missouri’s 55th governor standing in front of a red curtain, with the Missouri Capitol Building and the Missouri River in the background. According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Nixon’s campaign fund paid artist Bill Neukomm $4,000 to paint the portrait.
"I wanted to be positive. I wanted it to reflect the great values of state of Missouri: Working hard and bringing people together," Nixon told reporters after a slew of speeches by other lawmakers and statewide officials.
One thing the portrait doesn’t include is Nixon’s glasses, which he wore throughout his eight years in office.
"I served more time without them,” he added. “Plus glasses change, your face doesn't -- it just ages."
Nixon’s portrait, which will likely hang on the first floor of the Missouri Capitol, was a nostalgic reprieve of sorts from more vexing issues from the session’s first week:
The tallest man, the broadest shoulders
Before session started, Sen. Caleb Rowden quipped that he had a better chance of growing to be “8 feet tall” than Jason Crowell being confirmed as a permanent member of the Missouri Housing Development Commission. The Columbia Republican isn’t likely to grow exponentially, because Greitens withdrew Crowell’s nomination last week.
But Crowell may have the upper hand. After he played a decisive role in halting the tax incentive from being issued in 2018, Greitens and his allies hold all the leverage. As long as the governor and his allies control the Missouri Housing Development Commission, that board can hold off on doling out state low-income housing tax credits unless the legislature makes substantial changes to the program.
Proponents of the low-income tax credit are obviously upset by this turn of events, as they contend the incentive cultivates high-quality housing for the working poor and elderly. Others, like Crowell, contend the tax credit enriches developers and bankers while wasting the state’s money.
Even with the height of state senators remaining constant, Crowell may have accomplished his long standing goal of reining in tax credits.
Road to the ballot
Count Lt. Gov. Mike Parson as one Republican official who wants to see a vote on a gas tax increase to fix roads and bridges.
That idea is gaining traction after a House-Senate committee recommended raising the gasoline tax by 10 cents and diesel tax by 12 cents. That would raise about $430 million for transportation projects every year.
“Bottom line is we, as statewide officials, have got to be willing to get out here on the stump and say ‘look, we need to do this for the betterment of the state of Missouri and you’re going to have to pay for it,’” Parson said.
Whether any tax increase for roads and bridges will even be on the ballot is an open question. Lawmakers could end up putting up a plan for a statewide vote this year, but House Speaker Todd Richardson is not sure that will happen. The Poplar Bluff Republican added that prospects are better if a gas tax hike is paired with, says, income tax cuts.
Speaking of the House speaker, Richardson says he is at peace with forgoing a bid for state auditor this year. Instead, the term-limited lawmaker is seeking to make the most of his last year in the Missouri House.
“I love public service. And the thing that drove me to run for the state House in 2010 was the belief that good people in public office make a difference,” Richardson said. “And so the opportunity to continue that service in statewide office was attractive. But at the end of the day, as I looked at the things that were most important to me over the next year, it was really finishing this job and doing it the way I wanted to do it.”
Richardson still has plenty of opportunities to run for something in the future, including an open state Senate seat in 2020. House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, broached the possibility that Greitens could pick Richardson to serve as attorney general if current officeholder Josh Hawley defeats U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
But state Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, sees some benefit to Richardson focusing on his current job — as opposed to running for something else in 2018.
“What occurs in the legislative process in this building is based on personality of the leader,” Butler said. “And I think we’ve seen in the past couple sessions a leader like Todd Richardson has allowed some Democrats to be heard. But that hasn’t turned into passing bills. So I’ve seen a little bit of both.”
Reinventing your exit
Perhaps the most surprising development of the legislature’s first week was Sen. Ryan Silvey’s appointment to the Public Service Commission. The Kansas City Republican quarreled with Greitens over a number of issues, but largely agrees with the governor on utility policies.
Silvey is forgoing three years in the Senate and a possible Kansas City mayoral bid to join the PSC. He said he’ll miss the “day-to-day camaraderie with people I’ve built long relationships with,” as well as the debates over public policy.
One thing Silvey won’t miss? “Fundraising.”
“It’s the worst part of politics, straight up,” Silvey said. “I mean, calling people and asking them to give you money is just the worst. … It’s never part of the job that you’re look, ‘Oh, man! I get to go ask people for money today!’”
On the Trail, an occasional column, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.
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