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Nixon unveils Missouri First initiative to keep and bring jobs to companies already here

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2010 - On the same day that the latest national unemployment figures remained stuck at 10 percent, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon sought to underscore his commitment to stem the state's defection of major St. Louis area companies and their high-paying jobs.

"As we look for ways to create jobs and transform our economy, it's critical that we acknowledge and support businesses that are already making a difference by employing folks here in Missouri,'' Nixon said Friday, as he addressed dozens of workers assembled in an aircraft construction hangar for Boeing Co.

"We don't give (companies) who have been here for generations any special credit," the governor continued. "We've got to balance the playing field."

To do that, Nixon unveiled his "Missouri First" initiative, which would would redirect some existing state tax breaks -- now aimed at bringing in new employers -- to offer a boost to companies already here. To qualify, firms must have been in Missouri at least five years.

Nixon said the change is needed because Missouri now provides more financial help to encourage out-of-state companies to move in, than to make it more attractive to in-state firms considering moving out.

"We thought the playing field should be the exact opposite way," Nixon said. 

According to Nixon's office, the Missouri First initiative "is the third major component" of the governor's economic development/jobs package for this year. The other two portions, announced earlier, include "the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act (MOSIRA), which will create a dedicated fund to help attract and grow high-tech businesses in the state, and Training for Tomorrow, an initiative that will invest $12 million in educating Missourians for in-demand careers at Missouri's community colleges."

When asked, the governor didn't say whether "Missouri First" aid might have made a difference in discouraging the parade of St. Louis firms -- including Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., Chrysler, Ford, Pfizer -- that recently have shut down or slashed their local job force.

Rather, he preferred to focus on those that remain, notably Boeing, which provides thousands of jobs. "Boeing is certainly part of that tremendous tradition," Nixon said, telling his audience that "you're not just employees of this company ... you're also vital members of this community."

As he has at other stops around the state to promote his jobs initiative, Nixon -- a Democrat -- was accompanied by a bipartisan cadre of area legislators. The lawmakers' appearance reflected, in part, the fact that the GOP-controlled Legislature must approve Nixon's initiative.

At the governor's behest, state Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, addressed the Boeing crowd by emphasizing his support for Nixon's chief premise.

"We give better incentive to companies willing to come here, than keeping the jobs and companies that are here," Griesheimer said.

But back in Jefferson City, some other Republicans were signaling resistance to Nixon's plan. State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, issued a statement asserting that tax breaks to major employers weren't the best way to protect Missouri jobs.

Rather, Crowell called for reducing the state's minimum wage and instituting "right to work" legislation to make union membership optional at union-represented firms.

Crowell's jabs were aimed as much at Missouri Democratic-leaning labor leaders as at Nixon, since many of the state's large companies -- like Boeing -- have union-represented workers.

Although close to labor, Nixon appeared to downplay those ties on Friday. No labor leaders joined him on the podium at the Boeing visit.

Instead, the governor sought to emphasize his corporate support. Nixon was introduced by Dennis Muilenburg, executive vice president and chief executive of Boeing's St. Louis-based Integrated Defense Systems.

Muilenburg praised Nixon's initiative as yet another example of "our partnership with the government of the state of Missouri. The chief executive also cited Boeing's existing involvement in some state-supported job-training programs.

Those in the audience for Nixon's visit included Boeing workers Kevin James of Florissant and Chad Stevenson, a laid-off autoworker from Wentzville. Both are graduates of special training programs at the Florissant Valley campus of the St. Louis Community College system.

After the Boeing stop, Nixon went on to a similar event in Jackson, Mo. The governor said he was confident that he'd get an economic development bill on his desk this session that will include his initiative to reward existing firms.

"Everywhere I've gone," the governor said, "companies are excited by this."

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.