JEFFERSON CITY — Gubernatorial candidates Kenny Hulshof and Jay Nixon both said Friday that a better trained work force would be a key part of their efforts to expand Missouri's economy. But they disagree on how healthy that economy is.
Hulshof, a Republican who has represented the state's 9th Congressional District since 1997, and Democrat Nixon, the state's four-term attorney general, spoke separately at a Jefferson City summit of business leaders on mid-Missouri economic development.
Both said more state aid for schools and students would return economic dividends. But they offered sharply contrasting assessments of Missouri's economy, lacing their comments with political jabs.
Hulshof, who criticized Nixon for taking a "doom and gloom" view of the economy, said Missouri has improved its business climate through such means as offering state tax incentives, putting limit on lawsuits and changing the workers' compensation system.
"It's like a giant neon sign saying, 'Missouri wants your business,'" Hulshof said. "Let's not yank the welcome mat out from businesses."
Nixon opened his remarks by calling Missouri's unemployment rate unacceptably high, listing recent job layoffs and warning that rising prices are making life harder for Missourians.
"Let's face it, our economy is moving in the wrong direction," he said.
Missouri's unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in July, the highest since October 1991 and 13th highest in the nation.
Nixon pinned blame partly on a 2005 law that cut into the state's Medicaid health care program. He said the cuts have contributed to higher health care costs and passed to the private sector the expense of caring for those with lower incomes.
Hulshof, who has not yet revealed a detailed health care plan, said getting a handle on health care costs will take more than putting people back on Medicaid. Hulshof told reporters after his speech that his health care proposal will look for ways to help small businesses provide health insurance for their employees.
The two candidates each said that focusing on improving Missouri's education system would help with economic development.
Nixon wants to expand the existing A+ program to cover community colleges and four-year schools. The existing program allows students from certain school districts who also meet academic and community service requirements to attend community colleges tuition free.
Hulshof wants to increase state financial support for Missouri's universities, community colleges and technical schools through a formula modeled on the one used to disburse state money to local school districts.
Friday's event coincided with the debut of a new Nixon campaign commercial criticizing Hulshof's votes in Congress on free trade agreements. Nixon included some of the same critical themes in his speech.
"He has supported unfair trade deals that shift Missouri jobs overseas," Nixon said. "That is not how to create a good business climate right here."
But Hulshof told reporters on Friday that deals such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement help the state by making it easier for Missouri-made products to break into international markets.
"We can out-produce or out-compete any other company in any other country," Hulshof said. "Our farmers are more productive. Our manufacturers, our business, our service industry, we can blow the doors off any other company in any other country so long as we're given a level playing field."