This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 27, 2009 - Gov. Jay Nixon struck a bipartisan tone in his first state-of-the-state address Tuesday night, promising to balance the budget, boost Missouri's sluggish economy, and make some investments in social programs that were part of his campaign promises.
In his speech, Nixon did single out some spending priorities. They included familiar themes from his campaign: early childhood education, job retraining programs and health coverage for the uninsured.
Nixon said he would address the state's projected budget shortfall of about $260 million in the current fiscal year and balance the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, through a combination of state and federal help. He promises to cut more than 1,300 jobs in state government, eliminate 20 state programs and take back supplemental budget funds that haven't been spent.
Nixon added that the budget for the next fiscal year would be helped by Missouri's share of the economic stimulus money making its way through Congress. The state could receive $1.4 billion, including money to help offset its Medicaid health insurance costs, according to the Missouri Budget Project.
Some Republicans criticized the governor's proposals as too vague and too dependent on federal dollars that might not materialize. Others predicted that his promise to cut jobs and programs would be difficult to keep and that he should be more specific about which jobs and programs he would target.
"Missourians should be concerned that Jay Nixon hasn't provided any specifics on the required state spending," said Tina Hervey, communications director for the Missouri Republican Party. "Calling for expanded entitlement spending can only mean that Nixon is relying on Washington, D.C., to print money to pay for his spending plan."
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who delivered the GOP response, also criticized Nixon for "a state budget built around the hope of federal stimulus dollars. What if these dollars don't arrive? Then our entire budget would have been written on a bad check."
Amy Blouin of the Missouri Budget Project expressed concern that the budget focuses on the short term at best. She said the stimulus money would get Missouri through the next fiscal year at most.
"The problem is that Missouri has a structural deficit, which still needs to be addressed so these tough decisions about the budget won't resurface every year," Blouin said.
David Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, praised the bipartisan tone of Nixon's speech, which he said was well-delivered and echoed the tone in Washington. But Robertson said the governor's promise to cut jobs and programs would be controversial and would be roundly protested by people determined to stop the proposed cuts.
In spite of Blouin's misgivings over the state's tendency to focus on the short term, she and the Budget Project expressed optimism about Nixon's promises to bolster health care, create jobs and provide more assistance for working families. The Budget Project is also concerned that Missouri needs to expand access to child care assistance and create a state-level earned income tax credit "that rewards work and gives a proven economic boost to local economies."
Nixon had been sounding out some of his proposals during speeches and press conferences across Missouri following his election last November and leading up to Tuesday night's speech. During trips to St. Louis, he had spoken of giving small business owners incentives to create jobs and expand the state's Quality Jobs Act, which is supposed to give businesses incentives to create high-paying jobs.
He also repeated on Tuesday night his call for a review of the state's tax credit program to make sure credits are being used "for creating jobs and strengthening communities, not for padding the pockets of the wealthiest among us."
During those speeches and press conferences, Nixon also promised to pay more attention to job retraining programs at community colleges and set up a task force to put Missouri in a position to build the next generation of automobiles, such as electric cars and trucks powered by fuel cells.
"Protecting and creating jobs must be our top priority," Nixon said. "Tonight, I repeat my request: Send me an emergency jobs plan before the March break."
One area where Nixon promises to spend more money is education. He wants to give public schools an additional $3 billion in state aid, invest more in early childhood education and in programs to offer alternative schools for disruptive students. He also reiterated his promise to fund public colleges and universities at existing levels if they impose a one-year freeze on tuition hikes. In addition, he wants to expand the A+ Schools scholarship program to more students attending any public college or university in Missouri.
One big surprise was the extent to which Nixon said he would make good on a campaign promise to undo cutbacks in health spending. He wants to expand health coverage for 62,000 more Missourians, including 27,000 children. Even so, he concedes that the expansion was only the first step because the state has 729,000 uninsured residents, including 150,000 children.
Nixon noted he already had put an end to the state's practice that allowed governors "to give away license fee offices to their political allies." He also urged lawmakers to enact "a real campaign finance reform bill," decrying special interest groups from across the country that pour millions of dollars into elections in Missouri.