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Nixon hints may be more receptive to special session

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon sounded a tad more receptive today about calling a special legislative session to deal with economic issues. But he continued to emphasize that the political players need to reach an agreement ahead of time on the various stumbling blocks that prevented a deal during the last legislative session.

Nixon's audience was made up largely of state and local business leaders at today's Regional Chamber and Growth Association luncheon, as part of its 2011 Public Policy Speaker Series.

"We were very close to getting those measures done,'' Nixon said, referring to a package of related measures that dealt with economic development and state tax credits. The deal died over disagreements between Senate Republicans who wanted to limit the state's increasingly expensive tax-credit programs -- particularly those dealing with historic structures and low-income housing -- and House Republicans who disagreed.

Nixon told reporters later that the tax credits for low-income housing were actually a more complicated matter to resolve than historic tax credits -- which he has sought to curb for years. But he declined to get specific.

Dan Mehan, chief executive of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry -- and involved in some of the behind-the-scenes talks -- said in an interview after Nixon's RCGA appearance that he believed there was a 50-50 chance of a special session. Mehan added that it would most likely be called for September, when legislators would be in Jefferson City anyway for the veto session, in which the General Assembly will decide whether to try to override Nixon's vetos of various bills.

Speaking to the RCGA, Nixon reaffirmed that he didn't want to call a special session "just to continue a discussion" -- but the governor pointedly avoided his pithier earlier statements (such as his May 13 comment, "We're not going call legislators into special session to have a taxpayer-funded debating society").

Nixon caught himself in mid-sentence and touched off chuckles when he joked to the RCGA crowd that "I don't want to be overly quotable."

In fact, the governor generally stuck to his traditional conciliatory playbook, unlike last Friday's standing-ovation-generating address to fellow Democrats, in which Nixon railed about "ideological extremists'' in Missouri and elsewhere.

In today's speech, he opted instead to allude in general to his concern that "there has been a degradation (in public discourse)...people 'bark' at each other."

Civility, said Nixon, "is a much better way to run a democracy and to run a state."

Focus on finances

To the RCGA, Nixon focused primarily on fiscal matters and touted Missouri's stronger economic position, as he saw it, compared to other states -- including neighboring Illinois.

"We will never have 'Washington, D.C., budget management' here in Missouri," the governor said (apparently ignoring his alleged ban against quotable comments). Referring to the state's balanced-budget mandate in its constitution, Nixon said, "We cannot spend money we do not have."

He cited $172.2 million in line-item budget withholdings he has made to the budget passed by the General Assembly for the fiscal year beginning July 1, out of a belief that legislators approved too much spending.

Nixon emphasized that he maintained a desire to keep down the costs of higher education and recalled that when he graduated from college and law school several decades ago, most students had accumulated little or no college-loan debt. Nixon said that allowed him and others then to buy a car and home quickly and make other purchases that help fuel the economy.

Now, he said, students graduate with such huge loans that they have to defer many purchases -- which he said also hurts the economy.

The governor also touched on a variety of other issues during a question-and-answer session at the luncheon and afterward with reporters: They included:

--- The proposed China cargo hub at Lambert Field: Nixon said he supported the general concept of expanding foreign trade but added that "there are a lot of moving parts'' in the Lambert proposal that still needed to be resolved. He noted the primary proposal to earmark $360 million in state tax credits for warehouse development around the airport and observed with such an investment, "you want to make sure it's spent correctly."

-- His veto this spring of Senate Bill 188: Nixon defended his opposition to the bill, a measure sought by business groups that would have made it more difficult for employees to sue their employers for discrimination. "I don't think we need to go backward to make sure the workplace is discrimination-free,'' the governor said.

--The deadly tornado that a month ago destroyed much of Joplin, Mo.: "I hope I never have to see a debris field like that (again) in my life."

-- A proposed sales tax on internet sales: Nixon indicated that he was aware that many small businesses say their operations are hurting because people can purchase items on the internet without paying sales taxes. The legislature has considered the idea, but both chambers have yet to approve it.

Later Thursday, Nixon's staff issued a statement aimed at making clear that he "is not in favor of increasing those taxes."

The statement added: "As he has shown over the past two years, Gov. Nixon is committed to balancing the budget and firmly holding the line on taxes."

--The future of the Rams in St. Louis: Nixon long has known Stan Kroenke, the wealthy Columbia, Mo.-based businessman who now is majority owner of the football team. Nixon praised Kroenke as "a solid owner'' of sports teams in Colorado and Europe.

Nixon sidestepped a question about his involvement in any talks regarding the Rams, saying, "I talk to our owners of our professional sports teams on lots of stuff."

A sports fan and former basketball player, Nixon did allow with a chuckle, "I got elected with a certain number of sports teams. I'd like to keep that number."

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.

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