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Incumbent Robb fascinated with economics

Republican says the budget is the most difficult challenge facing the state.
Thursday, October 16, 2008 | 6:53 p.m. CDT; updated 11:22 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008

COLUMBIA — Ed Robb is not loquacious. He doesn’t have to spin phrases or spout philosophy to get his point across. For Robb, the facts, and more importantly — the figures — speak for themselves.

Robb was born July 1, the calendar day for the state’s financial new-year. He is a man who has spent his entire life crunching numbers, articulating economic assumptions and crafting complex supply-and-demand models. He is a man who has fulfilled his birthright.

“I’m a fiscal new year baby,” Robb said, joking that his birth date might have been a sign of things to come.

Although Robb’s path to the 24th District seat in the Missouri House of Representatives was not altogether unlikely, he didn’t foresee politics in his future while he was growing up. Leaving home from western Chicago to attend Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Robb was not drawn to politics. He was seduced by another mistress.

“I loved chemistry. I loved mathematics,” he said. “I loved how precise everything could be, and how impactful that was.”

Robb loved chemistry and found meaning in math. He wanted to be a civil engineer.

“I wanted to design and build bridges,” he said. “They’re works of art really, engineering marvels.”

But when he scored the best grade in his Economics for Engineers course during his sophomore year, he knew his life had changed for good.

“I was hooked,” Robb said. “My professor created for me a zeal for economics I didn’t think was possible.”

Economics has become more than a study for Robb; it is a lifelong practice. When he looks at history, he doesn’t see a chaotic unfurling of events and ideas, he sees the inevitable results of market forces. When he looks at spending proposals as vice-chairman of the House Budget Committee, he doesn’t play ideological favorites, he supports the programs he thinks can deliver the highest level of utility for the lowest amount of tax money.

Where hippies revered Bob Dylan’s poetry and athletes revered John Wooden’s pyramid of success, Robb reveres the free-market theories of Milton Friedman. Robb’s is a politics of marginal returns.

“(Thinking like an economist) gives you a structured approach to a lot of things, to most things really,” Robb said. “From a business standpoint, from a managerial standpoint … the strict application of economic theory can make life very simple if you follow the rules.”

It is his attention to detail and nuance that has earned him a reputation in the Capitol as a reliable stickler.

“Professionally, Ed (Robb) and I don’t typically meet eye to eye,” said 23rd District State Rep. and House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia. “But I always enjoy having political conversations with him because he’s a smart guy and I like to debate with him.”
   
Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, knew and respected Robb before Robb came to Jefferson City as a legislator. Hobbs said Robb was the person you called if you had a question about taxes and the economy, regardless of your political party affiliation.
   
“He’s a huge asset,” Hobbs said. “He knows as much about the budget as anyone in the state.”
   
Hobbs was among a few Republican legislators who showed up to Robb’s home five years ago to talk about the future.
   
“We knew he was a hard worker and would do well as a legislator,” Hobbs said. “With term limits, you don’t have the institutional memory that you should when working with budgets. But (Robb) can tell you what the budget looked like in 1986 if you need to know.”
                               
Robb was first elected to the House in 2004 and became the first Republican to represent the district – which includes parts of south Columbia and all of southern Boone County — in more than 20 years. He won re-election in 2006, narrowly edging out former and current-interim Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Jim Ritter in what was the most expensive House race in Missouri history at the time.

This year’s campaign against former Democratic legislator and judge Chris Kelly, however, already has broken the fundraising records of 2006, more than a month out from the election. Although this is his second record-breaking campaign, he remains confident he’ll return to Jefferson City early next year.

“I understand Missouri, I understand Boone County and our constituency,” he said. “I’ll be able to win because people know I can govern responsibly.”

Some would call Robb a moderate Republican. Robb calls himself a fiscal conservative. He is more informed by his life’s study than he is by the ideologies of the left or the right, he said.

“I am a fiscal conservative, and only one party stands for that,” Robb said. “It’s hard to be trained as an economist and not be a conservative.”

He thinks his ability to make sense from numbers and markets will prove invaluable again in the upcoming session.

“The budget is the single toughest issue that the state faces,” Robb said, noting business and state spending are equally challenged by financial uncertainty and a flagging economy.

“It will be a while before confidence return to the markets,” he said.

Robb thinks it is difficult to tell which economic scenario Missouri will face following the upcoming gubernatorial and presidential elections. Regardless, the state is sure to face some real difficult spending decisions.

“We could see a modest growth,” he said. “Or we could see as much as 1, even 2 percent losses in (state) revenue. … (The Budget Committee) will have to provide rigid constraints for any spending proposals we consider.”

Robb’s love of all things calculated plays out in his personal life as well. He loves to read histories, tend to his yard and his garden, as well as act as the chief cook for himself and his wife, Rosa.

“I’m a fairly good cook,” he said. “I look at cooking like chemistry, applied chemistry. It’s a combination of textures and tastes you have to balance.”

Robb also enjoys things that aren’t so easy to equate or predict. He has been a season ticket holder for MU football off-and-on for 30 years now, and he is enamored by the game.

“(College football) is exciting because of its unpredictability,” he said. “All of the greatest upsets in football … all the aspirational games you’ll find at the college level.”

Robb also enjoys golf, a game he says constantly surprises players regardless of talent or foresight.

Robb originally came to Columbia in 1972 to take a position as director of MU’s new Economic Research Center. He became an institution in MU’s Economics Department and a reliable economic consultant for both parties in Jefferson City. He said he owes it all to one professor.

“It goes to show you how one particular professor can change the course of your life,” he said.

After spending a life as a teacher and a researcher at MU, Robb said he knows how important the role of higher education is for the state. He sees an educated public as vital to sustaining a healthy economy.

“Higher education is interesting because it’s a quasi-public good, a quasi-private good,” he said. “It’s important to protect the university and see to it that it remains one of the premier research and learning institutions in the country.”

Robb makes the case that his integral role in the Missouri House Republican Caucus is essential for the future of higher education in Missouri. Sitting in perhaps the second most powerful seat in the House, he has the ear of perhaps the most powerful seat in the House: Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood.

“House Bill 2023 was a big accomplishment for higher education in this state,” Robb said, referencing a law that provided funding for major capital appropriations at MU, including the $31 million  for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

Robb thinks the public will recognize his efforts to bring the first increase in higher education funding since 2003, as well as his expansion of the Bright Flight scholarship programs, as signs of an effective legislator.

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