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On the Trail: Key takeaways from Nixon's final State of the State speech

Gov. Jay Nixon delivered his final State of the State speech on Wednesday. Much of what he said -- and what he didn't say -- were quite notable.

Contrary to social media speculation, Gov. Jay Nixon didn’t use his final State of the State speech to endorse Bernie Sanders, do a backflip or find the Afikoman.

Compared to those death-defying feats (especially seeking out the hard-to-find Afikoman), the Democratic governor’s address was fairly tame. He stuck to themes embedded within his other seven State of the State addresses, such as a desire to expand Medicaid, freeze college tuition and boost K-12 education spending.

It’s hard to imagine Nixon going out on a limb anymore, especially since Republican numbers in the General Assembly have skyrocketed since he took office in 2009. And besides: Nixon hasn’t always followed up on his provocative demands – such as the time he promised to lead a ballot initiative for campaign donation limits if the legislature didn’t act (spoiler alert: he didn’t).

But that doesn’t mean Wednesday’s address didn’t provoke a reaction – either from fellow elected officials or slightly snarky political reporters:

Nixon barely talked about Ferguson – or the Ferguson Commission’s recommendations

Nixon devoted only 70 words of his address to what could be construed as “Ferguson-related issues.” By comparison, Nixon used about 330 words to talk about the greatness of Missouri’s auto industry and 187 words discussing the state’s tourism industry. And the Ferguson portion of the speech was about 26 words longer than a shout out to a quilt making company in Caldwell County. 

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, right foreground, meets privately with the Ferguson Commission before accepting its recommendations at a press conference in Florissant on Sept. 14, 2015.
Credit Bill Greenblatt I UPI
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, right foreground, meets privately with the Ferguson Commission before accepting its recommendations at a press conference in Florissant on Sept. 14, 2015.

Within those 70 words, Nixon praised the passage of a municipal governance overhaul, struck an optimistic tone about bolstering training standards and called for changes to the state’s use of force statute. That’s it.

Some – including Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City – weren’t shocked that Nixon didn’t dwell on Ferguson that much. But it was surprising that the speech didn’t include either a call or even a passing reference to the Ferguson Commission report, which contained dozens of policy recommendations that need General Assembly approval.

Of course, many of those suggestions will probably need more than a speech to get through the legislature.But given how much time he used last year to talk about the impact on Ferguson, the lack of speech space this time around was noticeable.

Nixon gave the cold shoulder to redirecting general revenue for transportation projects

Lawmakers have struggled for years to find the right revenue source for the state’s roads and bridges. Some conservative lawmakers suggested finding savings within the budget that could be redirected the Missouri Department of Transportation. 

Construction on I-70
Credit Missouri Department of Transportation
Construction on I-70

But Nixon effectively nixed that proposal in his speech: “I’ve been clear about my position: If you use the roads, you should help pay for them. What I don’t support is taking money that should go to schools, law enforcement and mental health, and using it to patch potholes.” Instead, Nixon used a transportation metaphor to reiterate support for a small gas tax hike, declaring that he’s looking for Sen. Doug Libla’s bill“to move into the passing lane and get to my desk this year.”

Given that Libla’s approach found favor with a number of Republican lawmakers, Nixon’s opposition to general revenue redirection could actually matter – especially if there’s enough legislative opposition to sustain a veto.

Nixon’s departure could lead to a paradigm shift on education policy

When Nixon ran for governor in 2008, he drew a very stark line in the sand: Any legislation that he regarded as a “voucher bill” would not receive his signature. In many respects, Nixon followed through on this promise when he vetoed two bills altering the state’s transfer law – including one that allowed students in unaccredited districts to transfer to nonsectarian private schools.

Nixon shakes hands with lawmakers before his final State of the State speech.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications
Nixon shakes hands with lawmakers before his final State of the State speech.

He appeared to allude to his fulfilled campaign promise in his speech: “There were some who doubted whether our students and schools were up to the challenge, who said the new state standards were too tough, too ambitious. I disagreed. I knew that if we raised our expectations, our students would rise to meet them. No gimmicks or voucher schemes – just great teachers, the right tools, strong communities, and a shared commitment to excellence.”

But with Nixon leaving office after the end of the year, the gubernatorial barrier to so-called “school choice” bills could weaken.  Neither Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster nor any of the four Republican governor aspirants have made pledges similar to Nixon's. And several of the candidates have either vocally supported “school choice” (like Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder) or taken hefty campaign donations over the years from school-choice supporters like retired financier Rex Sinquefield (Koster, Kinder and former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway).  

So it wouldn’t be surprising if the next governor talked a lot more in the 2017 State of the State about school transfer issue – and proposed changing the law in a lot different manner than Nixon.

Nixon didn’t specifically call for campaign finance limits, though he criticized the state’s no-limit system

Few would argue Nixon tiptoed around a push to revamp the state’s ethics laws, especially when he stated that “Missouri’s ethics laws are a disgrace – the weakest in the nation.” He also didn’t speak too favorably of how the state allows for unlimited campaign contributions to candidates, declaring that Missourians understand “that a donor who writes you a fat check expects something in return.” 

Attorney General Chris Koster speaks a press conference Thursday in St. Louis with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's Dan Glaizer.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Unlike Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster does not support campaign contribution limits. And neither do the four GOP candidates running for governor.

But Nixon didn’t explicitly call for limiting campaign donations in his speech, instead imploring the legislature to “restore the public’s trust and pass real ethics reform now.”

While the lack of a specific line doesn’t negate Nixon’s years of advocacy on the issue, it does elicit some questions: Did he exclude it because it has no chance of passing? Did the governor want to temper such a call after the legislature called his bluff a few years ago? Or is it because he doesn't want to provide a lot of attention to the fact that Koster doesn’t support capping campaign donations?

In any case, even if Nixon had made a full-throated call for limits, it likely wouldn’t have mattered: The best hope for movement on that issue is through a ballot initiative.

Nixon’s request to regulate and tax the fantasy sports industry did not get a good legislative reception

One of the big surprises from Nixon’s speech was his call to regulate the fantasy sports industry, mostly likely lucrative ventures such as FanDuel and DraftKings. 

Nixon wants to tax and regulate fantasy sports.
Credit Flickr
Nixon wants to tax and regulate fantasy sports.

These services have provoked controversy throughout the country for different reasons, but clearly are attracting a lot of interest and a lot of money. Nixon contends regulating these sites could mean millions of dollars for the state’s education system.

“Let’s get real: this is gambling, kids are playing, and it’s completely unregulated. And there are lobbyists in this building who want to keep it that way. If you’re going to legalize it, we must regulate it and tax it just like we do casinos,” Nixon said. “This industry should follow the law, play by the rules, and pay its fair share.”

Needless to say, Nixon’s surprising addition to the speech did not get the warmest reception:

That seems to confirm Nixon’s assumption that regulating fantasy sports will be difficult. But if the state needs more revenue, daily fantasy sports sites may not be the worst place to look – especially since it’s more fun to compete against your high school friends than millions of faceless strangers.

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

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