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ANALYSIS: Missouri governor gets mixed legislative results

Monday, May 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon accomplished his top priority for the legislative session. But he has failed to fulfill the main promise of his campaign.

At the conclusion of his first legislative session Friday, Nixon reveled in passage of "an emergency jobs bill" that he had declared job No. 1 upon taking office in January.

But Nixon was unable to achieve even a modest portion of his bold campaign pledge to restore the 2005 cuts to Missouri's Medicaid health care program for the poor.

Though the results were mixed, Nixon proclaimed the session a success.

"You bet we scored this session," Nixon told reporters, using a football analogy. "The extra point may have been blocked, but we scored a touchdown."

The reality is "the people who voted for him didn't get what they thought they were getting," said George Connor, chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University. "I think maybe Governor Nixon was overselling his ability to get the Medicaid cuts (reversed)."

Nixon nearly didn't get either of his marquee issues.

The Democratic governor began the year with bipartisan applause in his State of the State address when he challenged legislators: "Send me an emergency jobs plan before the March break."

The House acted quickly, but the Senate did not. After several months of filibusters and negotiations, the economic development legislation still was in jeopardy on the penultimate night of the legislative session.

That it passed on the final day is at least partially attributable to the perseverance of Nixon's administration. Sponsoring Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, credited Nixon and his staff for helping to strike a compromise that expanded several of Missouri's tax incentives for businesses while reining in others that some lawmakers feared had grown to budget-busting proportions.

The final bill also includes expanded job training provisions sought by Nixon and the elimination of Missouri's corporate franchise tax for three-quarters of the businesses currently paying it — a provision pushed first by House Republicans but embraced by the governor as "targeted tax relief."

Throughout the session, Nixon pushed for legislation that would have expanded government health care to 35,000 low-income parents, a trimmed down version of his campaign pledge. The Republican-led Senate got on board, but the Republican-led House did not.

In fact, Republican House members repeatedly rejected Nixon's health care plan.

Although it would have been funded with money from hospitals and the federal government, House leaders insisted Nixon's plan could have cost the state in the future and equated it to welfare for the able-bodied.

"The legislature's failure to expand health care this year was shortsighted, but I will continue to pursue this issue," Nixon said at his post-session news conference.

Then Nixon downplayed the failure of his health care agenda, saying he had made progress by winning the support of hospitals, business groups and the Senate before it was spiked by House Republicans.

Nixon's health care plan failed largely because of partisan and ideological opposition from Republicans, who believe they made the right choice four years ago when eliminating Medicaid coverage for around 100,000 Missourians and reducing benefits for hundreds of thousands of others.

But there is a sense in which the failure of Nixon's health care plan and the success of the economic development legislation are linked.

As the economy soured in the final months before last November's election, Nixon began shifting his campaign emphasis, putting his health care proposals, and essentially his entire platform, under the umbrella of an economic plan.

"I think he recognized the economic situation in the state of Missouri gave him an opportunity to do something in that area, and the politics in Jefferson City were not going to let him accomplish his goal with respect to the health care issue," Connor said.

Connor gives Nixon's first legislative session an average grade.

Overall, "it probably went about as well as you can expect of a governor in his first year facing a legislature controlled by the opposition," added Peverill Squire, a political scientist at MU.

Although House Republicans accused a Nixon staffer of trying to bribe members for positive votes on the health care bill — an assertion denied by Nixon — lawmakers generally gave the governor good marks for his approach with lawmakers.

"The governor was very engaged, I've talked to him often at night," said House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields said Nixon, a former senator himself, conferred weekly with Senate leaders.

"He intervened where appropriate and did not intervene when not appropriate," said Shields, R-St. Joseph. "It is a tricky little ability to know when to do that and when not to do that."

No matter the results, Nixon said his first legislative session was successful in building relationships, which could pay off in the future.

"I think we began to have real serious and respectful conversations about important issues facing the state," Nixon said.


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