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ANALYSIS: Once a critic, Missouri Gov. Nixon now cutter-in-chief

Sunday, May 23, 2010 | 5:35 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — As a candidate, Jay Nixon pledged to reverse budget cuts. As Missouri governor, Nixon has become the cutter-in-chief.

With tax revenues in decline, Nixon has made six rounds of spending cuts totaling more than $900 million within the past year. And he's already planning to make about $350 million of cuts for the new budget year that begins July 1.

But rather than lamenting his situation, Nixon has embraced it. He talks regularly of reducing the size of state government, touts the more than 2,000 employee positions eliminated under his watch and highlights the ever-rising dollar figure of his spending cuts.

"My primary responsibility is to make sure we have a government that is the right size," Nixon said following the conclusion of a legislative session that failed to produce as much savings as the governor desired.

That comes from the same man who made restoration of Gov. Matt Blunt's 2005 Medicaid cuts the cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign and proposed more than a dozen program expansions as a candidate just two years ago.

Nixon's transformation is largely one of necessity, since the constitution requires the governor to maintain a balanced budget. But it also may prove politically advantageous.

Generically speaking, Missourians like their government to spend less instead of more. Voters have approved constitutional amendments limiting the growth of state revenues and mandating that they get the final say on big tax increases.

Missourians haven't passed a general statewide tax increase since 1987. And they haven't looked too favorably on politicians who have sought to raise revenues.

Democratic Gov. Bob Holden lost a showdown with the Republican-led legislature in 2003 when he repeatedly sought to generate more tax revenues to plug a budget shortfall. He was defeated the following year in the primary election.

Perhaps taking a lesson from recent history, Nixon has flatly ruled out any tax increases to help balance Missouri's budget — even though more than 30 other states have raised taxes since the economic downturn began.

Instead, Nixon proposed to "right-size" government by merging agencies, eliminating state holidays, laying off more employees, getting rid of state vehicles, scaling back employee pension and health benefits, privatizing child support collections and curtailing Missouri's expansive tax credit programs.

Many of Nixon's ideas died in the Republican-led House, where some members said the proposals needed more study. Although House leaders claimed to have passed a balanced budget, Nixon's administration said last week that he will need to cut an additional $350 million.

State Sen. Jason Crowell, who worked closely with Nixon to try to curtail tax credits and pension costs, said some of his fellow Republicans appear to believe they can ding Nixon's popularity by forcing him to make budget cuts.

"I think they're making a political miscalculation," said Crowell, of Cape Girardeau, who was the House majority leader during the 2003 spending showdown with Holden. "I think our friends on the other side of the building are going to let a Democratic governor outflank conservatives on fiscal management."

When then-Republican Gov. John Ashcroft had to cut budgets passed by a Democratic-led legislature a couple decades ago, Ashcroft ended up benefiting politically, Crowell said.

The key for Nixon is to keep the conversation about the big-picture need for budget cuts, not the specific programs being cut. Blunt struggled to accomplish that in 2005, when his message about controlling runaway spending was drowned out by attention to the 100,000 low-income Missourians who lost their health coverage.

"Individual cuts are unpopular, but the idea of cutting is popular in the abstract," said Eric Morris, an assistant communications professor at Missouri State University who focuses on political rhetoric, polling and campaigns.

If a governor makes cuts, "the best way to put makeup on it is to emphasize the broader, more general reducing-the-size-of-government angle," Morris said.

That is exactly what Nixon has done — even as he has contradicted some of the specific objectives he laid out as a candidate.

Nixon, for example, pledged as a candidate to expand the Parents as Teachers early childhood development program. But while Nixon has been governor, the program's budget has been cut by more than half.

Similarly, Nixon pledged as a candidate "to see if the state can do more" to subsidize school busing. Now that he is governor, Missouri is providing less money for school busing.

Those decisions have caused angst among some of Nixon's fellow Democrats, who wish he would do more to raise revenues instead of just cutting spending.

Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, says Missouri could reap many millions of dollars by joining other states in improving tax collections on Internet sales or by raising Missouri's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.

"I understand him being a vigorous cheerleader on some of those things would carry some risk perhaps" politically, Oxford said. "But at the same time, I would like to see him help educate the public about some things that need to be changed."

 


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