JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's gubernatorial candidates diverged on higher education policies while uniting behind ethanol incentives as they appealed Friday to a politically active rural crowd.
Fresh off primary election victories, Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon both emphasized pro-agriculture policies as they spoke back-to-back to about 175 members of the Missouri Farm Bureau's political action committees.
Nixon pledged increased funding for the state Department of Agriculture and to help expand the markets for Missouri agricultural products, partly by promoting a "made in Missouri label" to consumers.
Hulshof, who owns a farm in the Bootheel, emphasized his rural roots. The son and grandson of farmers, he is a former state officer in Future Farmers of America, has an agriculture economics degree, is a member of the Farm Bureau and recently received the national group's highest political award.
"I'm one of you," Hulshof told Farm Bureau members before receiving their endorsement.
The endorsement was no surprise. The state Farm Bureau has never endorsed a Democrat in a statewide election.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, Treasurer Sarah Steelman sought to capitalize on a division among some livestock and row-crop farmers by calling for the repeal of Missouri's ethanol mandate for gasoline. Some livestock farmers believe the corn-based fuel is driving up the cost of feed.
Hulshof staunchly defended the ethanol mandate as a way to reduce dependency on foreign oil and keep gasoline prices from rising even higher.
But ethanol appears to be done as a divisive issue. Nixon joined Hulshof on Friday in praising the alternative fuel.
Hulshof, however, criticized Nixon for opposing Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's initiative to remove $350 million from Missouri's student loan authority to finance college construction projects. The Republican-led General Assembly passed the plan in 2007, despite some Democratic opposition.
Hulshof called it a "pretty bold agenda item" and claimed Nixon worked with a state senator "to try to torpedo that bill and filibuster it and kill it, just because he didn't want a Republican to get credit.
"I'm not here to send fireworks up, but that's just not right," Hulshof said.
Told of Hulshof's assertions, Nixon responded to reporters, "that's bizarre."
Nixon has consistently called Blunt's initiative a bad idea, claiming it could harm students by siphoning money away from the loan authority and infringing on its ability to offer reduced interest rates or loan-forgiveness programs.
The Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority "was formed to make college more affordable, not to stand in the place of a failed policy to support higher education," Nixon said.
The loan authority has failed to make all of the state payments called for by the new law and also has cut back some of its benefits to student borrowers. But MOHELA officials say that is due to tight credit markets and changes in federal loan policies, not Blunt's construction initiative.
Nixon has proposed to expand an existing Missouri scholarship program that provides free community college tuition to certain students. His projected $61 million plan would provide those students an additional two years of tuition to complete their bachelor's degree at a state university.
Nixon and Hulshof also disagreed somewhat on how best to select Missouri judges.
Appellate and urban trial judges currently are nominated by special panels, which submit three names to the governor. Some Republicans have proposed to change the composition of the selection committees, increase the number of candidates submitted to the governor or require the appointees to be confirmed by the Senate.
Hulshof, an attorney, generally defended the selection process Friday, but he said he believes the governor should be able to veto the panel of three nominees and receive a new slate of candidates.
Nixon, who defended the selection process more vigorously, also proposed to change it by requiring the full list of applicants - not just the three finalists - to be made public.
Hulshof and Nixon both generally embraced Ameren Corp.'s proposal to build a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County as a means of producing more electricity in Missouri.
To build the plant, Ameren has said it would need to reverse a 1976 law that prohibits Missouri utilities from charging customers for power plants while they're being built.
Nixon said if that law is changed, he would make sure that customers benefit from any profits Ameren makes by selling electricity from the plant to utilities in other states.