On the Trail: A peek inside a political reporter's notebook | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Trail: A peek inside a political reporter's notebook

Jan 22, 2017

In just three weeks, Missouri saw the installation of a GOP legislative supermajority, the inauguration of Republican statewide officials and Gov. Eric Greitens’ first State of the State address. These ceremonies came as Missouri’s political leaders appear ready to pass seismic policy changes  – and deal with a worsening budget situation.

As is customary when I spent time at Missouri’s beautiful Capitol, I pulled together some odds and ends to provide a bit more context about the big-ticket items on the state’s legislative and executive radar.

The elephant in the room

The reaction to Greitens’ State of the State speech focused largely on something that was missing – the Republican official’s budget proposal. Greitens’ staff announced weeks ago that the governor’s budget would come out in February. But when the governor announced $146 million in withholds on the current fiscal year’s budget just hours before his big speech, the delay became bigger news. 

House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob
Credit File photo by Tim Bommel|Mo. House Communications

So what did lawmakers who will hash out the budget’s details think of the delay? Not surprisingly, opinions are decidedly mixed.

“Well, it’s definitely different,” said House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob. “From our  process standpoint, it’s definitely suboptimal. But I completely understand it. I don’t know the last time a governor was elected who wasn’t bringing anybody over with them from a different office. He’s dealing with that. The challenge with assembling the budget for next year compared to the previous year is going to be a pretty monumental.”

Fitzpatrick’s Democratic colleagues, though, said that the lack of a budget proposal sapped some substance from the State of the State. (To be fair, Greitens’ predecessors also tended to focus their speeches on broader policy objectives, in addition to ticking off budgetary priorities.)

“We need to see the work,” said state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis. “We need to see a budget. We talk about all the cuts, where is the money going to, so we can effectively come up with these programs that he’s talking about?

Look inward

Greitens was criticized for withholding tens of millions of dollars from higher education. But at least one prominent Democrat said Greitens doesn't deserve all the blame. 

Former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Empower Missouri Executive Director Jeanette Mott Oxford said in a statement that anger toward Greitens was “unfair.” The former Democratic lawmaker from St. Louis wrote that “Missouri taxpayers and the General Assembly share in creating the context that forced Gov. Greitens to make these cuts to balance the state budget – just as previous governors have also been forced to make similar withholdings.”

Oxford noted the state’s Hancock amendment limits the amount of revenue Missouri can have – and makes it much more difficult to raise taxes. She also pointed out that Missouri state government spending  is "approximately $4 billion below the point at which Hancock refunds would be triggered." Even so, she noted Missouri lawmakers have repeatedly cut taxes and decided against eliminating the deduction for federal taxes paid.

“Taken in combination, Missouri’s voters and General Assembly have structured our state to fail to provide essential programs and services and destined Missouri governors to face withholdings repeatedly,” Oxford concluded.

Given the timing of the withholdings, it’s an open question whether a Democratic governor could have avoided the type of cuts Greitens made. Regardless, Greitens acted with the cards he was dealt – and he’s responsible for charting out Missouri’s fiscal course. 

Agricultural connection

Greitens is the first governor in quite a long time to come from St. Louis. But with President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to lead the U.S. Agriculture Department, Greitens may now have a strong connection there. 

Greitens senior advisor Austin Chambers, far right, posted this photo on Twitter with former Gov. Sonny Perdue, center. Perdue was nominated to head the Department of Agriculture last week.
Credit Austin Chambers' Twitter account

As noted elsewhere, political consultant Nick Ayers, who worked on Greitens’ campaign, also worked on Perdue’s gubernatorial bids. Whether that political relationship translates into advantages for agriculture-rich Missouri remains to be seen, but it probably doesn’t hurt.

It's an unanticipated twist in Greitens' rise to power. After all, Missouri’s commodity groups endorsed Democratic nominee Chris Koster over Greitens – and often cited the former attorney general’s work in the agricultural policy. Now, it’s possible that Greitens could have a better working relationship with the USDA than a Gov. Koster ever could – a reversal in conventional political wisdom.

Tax credit pushback

Greitens’ speech included a pitch to pare down the state’s tax credits, a long-running goal for both conservative Republicans – and some Democrats like former Gov. Jay Nixon. Given the state’s financial situation, there may be more momentum this year to get something done. 

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, speaks on the Senate floor last Wednesday.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

But advocates of popular incentives aren’t going down without a fight. While wandering the halls on Wednesday, I ran into several St. Louis-based supporters of the state’s low-income housing and historic preservation tax credits. They included Downtown STL President and CEO Missy Kelley, who was testifying against a bill lowering the cap for historic preservation tax credits.

Senate Democrats also are likely to push back. They could slow deliberations if Republicans don’t use a filibuster-squashing maneuver known as the previous question.

“Some of these tax credits are pretty important and do result in economic development,” said state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “Historic tax credits, low-income housing tax credits — I still believe they are really important. Now, I do think it's fair to say ‘show me the money and show me the outcome.’ And if these things don’t pan out and don’t bring revenue into the state or don’t support jobs, then we have some clawback provisions that should be put into place.”

Can unions adapt?

The fate of Missouri’s tax credits may be up in the air, but there’s a whole lot less suspense over “right to work,” which bars unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues.  

State Rep. Doug Beck, D-Affton, said labor unions are already aggressively working to keep workers happy. Aggressive membership services may be critical to prevent Missouri labor unions from becoming significantly weaker under a right to work law.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications

That policy became a fait accompli as soon as Greitens won the governorship. And barring a successful initiative petition, right to work will almost certainly prompt organized labor to focus on keeping its membership happy enough to keep paying dues.

At least one Democratic lawmaker with deep ties to labor says that won’t be a problem. Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, for instance, said, “In my craft, I would no way want to be a non-dues paying member.”

“If it wasn’t beneficial to the members, they wouldn’t be joining – and they wouldn’t stay in,” said Walsh of Bellefontaine Neighbors and a retired member of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local No. 1.  “You know what makes a good union leader? The members. They elect them. They put them in place. You wouldn’t need leaders if you didn’t have people that didn’t want to belong.”

Right to work hasn’t stopped unions in Nevada from staying politically powerful. But organized labor in Wisconsin has taken a hit. And Missouri’s unions may face some struggles if the legislature also takes aim at prevailing wage and project labor agreements.

Home cookin’

Lt. Gov. Mike Parson presides over the Missouri Senate last Wednesday. Parson is expected to take a sizable role in helping Greitens pass his legislative agenda.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

As a former member of the Missouri Capitol press corps, I’ve partaken in many, many meals in the cafeteria tucked away in the basement. It’s a place where legislators, staffers, lobbyists and journalists congregate to get a quick lunch during a hectic day. 

I had never seen a statewide official at the eatery – until Wednesday. That’s when I spotted Lt. Gov. Mike Parson chatting it up with lunch-goers. The GOP official’s presence in the Capitol was a welcome sight, since he recently underwent a quintuple heart bypass.

While the lieutenant governor’s office often gets dismissed as ceremonial, some expect that Greitens will use Parson to navigate legislation through the Senate. And that’s not an unreasonable assumption: Parson’s predecessor, former Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, took on quite a few public policy duties when he served alongside fellow GOP Gov. Matt Blunt from 2005 to 2009.

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

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum