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Economic downturn may keep Nixon from fulfilling campaign promises

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 14, 2008 - Gov.-elect Jay Nixon hasn't backed away from his big-ticket campaign promises of restoring health benefits and boosting spending for higher education, but some of his political wishes might have to take a back seat to Missouri's fiscal reality.

In what appeared to be a bow to that reality, Oren Shur, spokesman for the Nixon transition team, said Friday that while Nixon had put forth a "clear agenda to bring about the change Missouri needs" when he campaigned for governor, Nixon "also consistently said that he supports balanced budgets, fiscal responsibility and living within our means."

Shur added, "Clearly the national economic crisis will be felt here in Missouri, so Gov.-elect Nixon will work together with the legislature to move Missouri forward in a fiscally responsible way."

During the campaign, the governor-elect promised to restore Medicaid funding for about 110,000 people removed from the Medicaid rolls. All told, restoring Medicaid and other social services cuts would cost about $265 million. Nixon also proposed to expand Missouri's tuition-free program to more students at a cost of $61 million.

Wayne Goode's Role

Shur noted that Nixon had picked a highly respected former state senator, Wayne Goode, a financial expert, to review the state's budget situation.

"Once that review is complete, we'll have a clearer idea of how badly the national economic crisis is impacting our state budget," Shur said.

Asked on Friday whether Nixon's comments and the state's fiscal problems meant the governor-elect might have to back away from some of his proposals, Goode said, "I'm not going to comment on that. That's the governor's call. He's probably isn't going to comment on it either until we get through our analysis of the current budget."

Goode added, "I'd just say that anyone with his eyes open realizes that not just the country but the world is facing a major fiscal downturn, and the situation is not good. The bottom line is that revenue will be very tight, both in the fiscal year we're now in the middle of and the next fiscal year."

Goode said the team would be "looking at a number of scenarios and revenue estimates, how much money we have, what responsibilities we have, then it will be up to the governor to make the decisions from those options."

Already, Goode is working across the aisle, calling on old acquaintances in the Senate in particular to "try to reach some kind of common ground," he said.

On Friday, he reached out to state Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "I spoke at length with him," Goode said. "He and I served together and we have a good relationship."

In an earlier interview, Nodler voiced the consensus of state GOP leadership when he stressed that the Legislature would not approve Nixon's Medicaid proposal.

In any case, Goode says his job is to reach out to Republicans. "It's going to be a tough year. In this situation, the bottom line is that things work best when you have as much cooperation as possible. That's also when the public is best served."

Nodler did hold out the possibility that the two parties might be able to work together on something along the line of Nixon's efforts to make college more affordable to more Missouri students.

Earlier this week, in an interview with the Associated Press, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, made similar suggestions about potential GOP support for higher education funding, but Shields dismissed any possibility of restoring the Medicaid cuts.

Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, also says he's willing to work with Nixon and find common ground, but wants to see how the new governor intends to pay for what he proposes in January.

A Conciliatory Tone

For the most part, the GOP tone seemed conciliatory even before Nixon appointed Goode to help him build bridges. But that doesn't mean strident criticism won't pop up, as it did this week after Nixon told the AP in Springfield: "We will attempt to implement those priorities at whatever level is affordable within the confines of the dollars we have."

Tina Hervey, communications director for the Missouri Republican Party, pounced on that comment with both feet, saying Nixon was already reneging on campaign promises.

Hervey said, "Within a day of winning his election, Nixon made clear that he had no intention of implementing any of his campaign promises, which is a good thing for Missourians. The economy and budget situation didn't change the day after the election, everyone knew the things Nixon campaigned on were unaffordable. It's disappointing that Gov.-elect Nixon is already breaking promises."

In response, Oren, the transition team spokesperson, took the high road, saying, "The people of Missouri didn't just vote for a change in policies, but they also voted for a change in tone. Gov.-elect Nixon is committed to working together with Democrats and Republicans to move our state forward. The campaign is over, so it's time to stop the political attacks and to start working together for the good of our state. That's what the people of Missouri want and deserve."

Getting Nixon's health proposals would have been difficult in any case since the Legislature is controlled by Republicans. But getting the measures through is complicated by the state's growing budget difficulties.

Little more than a week ago, the Office of Administration threw out Missouri's old projection that Missouri would end the current fiscal year with a $340 million balance. The budget had assumed that revenue would rise by 3.1 percent; in fact, revenue has fallen 1.1 percent since the new budget was approved, according to the Office of Administration.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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