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Parson promises new direction in tone but not policy

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has put some of his political capital on the line to pass a gas tax increase on Tuesday.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson flanked by House Speaker Todd Richardson, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard after his first address to the General Assembly.

New Missouri Gov. Mike Parson called for “debating with respect’’ as he pledged Monday to set a new tone in the state Capitol while staying true to the Republican Party’s conservative policies.

To illustrate his point, Parson met privately with Republicans and Democrats – including most of the state’s members of Congress – before addressing the General Assembly to formally mark his takeover of state government.

Parson’s 15-minute speech was conciliatory in its message, even as it was filled with veiled criticisms of his predecessor, fellow Republican Eric Greitens. The former governor resigned less than two weeks ago amid scandal and controversy over his personal and political behavior.

“We have witnessed politics at its worst and at its best,’’ Parson said. He then went on laud most state officials, past and present, who “were not here for fame or glory or notoriety.”

Parson’s words appeared aimed, in part, at countering Greitens’ repeated blasts at “career politicians’’ – including many in his own party. Parson is among the state's political veterans, serving as a sheriff and a state legislator in the House and Senate before his election in 2016 as lieutenant governor.

“We should expect criticism and understand that some of it is unfair – but we must always take responsibility for our own actions,’’ Parson observed. “Most of all, we must always remember that we serve the people and the state of Missouri – not the other way around.”

Gov. Mike Parson addresses a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly. June 11, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
New Gov. Mike Parson addresses a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly. The former lieutenant governor was sworn in less than two weeks ago.

Speech lacked policy details

Parson did not get into specific policy issues, including the question regarding whether the General Assembly should change state law – or the state constitution – so that a new lieutenant governor could be named.

With his ascension, the statewide post is currently vacant – and could remain so through 2020 unless there’s a legislative fix.

Parson’s speech was heartily praised by fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Todd Richardson and Attorney General Josh Hawley.

“With his address tonight, Gov. Parson made it clear how important it is for this institution to focus on serving the people of Missouri and reaffirmed his strong commitment to restoring the trust of Missourians in their government,” Richardson said.  

But Richardson also took note of Parson’s support for many of the conservative pieces of legislation passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly this year.

“I am confident the governor’s proven conservative track record means he will remain a strong advocate of views Missourians overwhelmingly voted for in 2016, for us to fight for in Jefferson City,” Richardson said.

Both the governor and Legislature in Missouri are in charge of the congressional redistricting process. But they're directly involved in approving state legislative maps.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the state Senate and statewide elected officials listen as Gov. Mike Parson addresses a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly.

Democrats remain wary

That conservative theme is among the reasons why Democrats such as Rep. Clem Smith of St. Louis had a measured response to the new governor’s pitch.

“I’m not going to drink the Kool-Aid,’’ Smith said dryly. Greitens and Parson “share ideology,’’ the lawmaker observed, “even if the packaging is different.”

State Rep. Peter Merideth, a fellow St. Louis Democrat, noted that Parson and Greitens had embraced the same anti-government message in 2016.

“Despite this newfound faith in government, even Parson appears to want the same anti-government (and anti-people) policies of his predecessor,” Merideth wrote on Facebook.

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin, praised Parson for moving swiftly to reach out to officials in both parties to see where there might be consensus. During Monday’s private congressional meeting, she said, the topics included “transportation, infrastructure and trade.”

Dan Mehan, chief executive of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, laced his praise for Parson’s approach with the state’s needs that some business leaders want the new governor to address.

“Looking forward, the biggest concerns for our state are helping workers attain in-demand skills, fixing our transportation infrastructure and making sure that Missouri is globally competitive for job growth and business investment,” Mehan said. “It’s clear that the governor has embraced the task of addressing these issues.”

Gov. Mike Parson addresses a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly. June 11, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson addresses a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly.

Questions remain regarding Greitens

But it doesn’t appear that either Parson or the General Assembly is eager to deal with any lingering issues concerning Greitens.  

The now-former governor had been facing possible impeachment stemming from a 2015 affair with a woman that generated a now-dropped indictment and his political use of a donor list tied to a charity that he helped found.

With no debate, the General Assembly quickly acted Monday to end the special session that leaders had launched less than a month ago to look into the allegations against Greitens.

Legislative leaders declined to comment Monday on the future of a House committee that has been investigating Greitens.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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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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