JEFFERSON CITY — Jobs.
Creating new ones and preserving those that already exist are the priority for Gov. Jay Nixon and legislative leaders this year.
Yet Nixon has proposed to eliminate hundreds of positions from state government. The goal of shrinking state government is winning the support of lawmakers who have said they will consider almost any idea for spurring job growth in Missouri, where unemployment has remained higher than 9 percent for nearly two years.
In the prepared text of his State of the State message to lawmakers this past week, Nixon used the word "job" 34 times. In one passage, Nixon detailed how state efforts had created or saved 3,900 jobs in St. Louis, Perryville, Springfield, Kansas City and Columbia. But on the same night he delivered the speech, Nixon proposed a budget that would eliminate 863 state positions in the 2012 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Both ideas can be popular, though they might seem slightly contradictory.
For example, Nixon during the State of the State speech said he planned to be "fighting hard every day for every job." About three minutes later, Nixon highlighted how his proposals would mean a reduction of the state's payroll by 3,300 positions since he took office in January 2009.
The governor's administration said it hopes to minimize layoffs from the most recent proposed round of job cuts by shifting workers to currently unfilled positions that are slotted to continue.
Nixon told reporters Friday that state government needs to operate efficiently and that his economic development plans are focused on the private sector.
"I don't think growing public-sector jobs is a long-term economic development plan," Nixon said. "Protecting the people, making sure that we have the resources to do government functions is important. But growing the economy, I think, you have to look to the private sector."
There is general agreement to focus on boosting jobs in the private sector from House Republicans, who have sometimes tussled with the Democratic governor but also have made job creation their priority this year.
House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said state government does not exist to be a job creator and that it's OK for its payroll to shrink when revenue falls.
"We could add 5 million jobs to the state if you wanted to, and if all of them were taxpayer-paid, I wouldn't be real thrilled about that situation because someone is going to have to pay the bill," Tilley said.
Missouri is facing a budget deficit of several hundred million dollars. Its unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in December, according to the Department of Economic Development — the 21st straight month the jobless rate has topped 9 percent. In November, Missouri had the 15th highest unemployment rate among states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among the eight bordering states, Illinois and Kentucky had higher jobless rates, Tennessee matched Missouri, and the others had lower rates.
Nixon's proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year would eliminate positions in several agencies. More than 100 would be cut each from the Transportation, Corrections, Health and Senior Services, and Social Services departments.
The Department of Transportation, which is governed by a commission and does not directly answer to Nixon's office, already has eliminated about 200 positions since last February. The agency plans to cut more than $200 million over five years and to trim another 200 positions by June 2013.
From state agencies that respond directly to the governor's office, Nixon's administration has proposed privatizing a call center that handles changes to the addresses and phone numbers of social services recipients. Prison canteens would use ATM-style machines to sell products, and more contractors would be used to oversee children in the foster care system.
A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said the agency expected to save $1.2 million per year and would try to move 29 prison canteen workers into other jobs that currently are open.
Nixon budget director Linda Luebbering said that many of the jobs that would be cut currently are filled. But officials hope shifting workers into different jobs and freezing hiring will cause most of the eliminated positions to be vacant.
"These are not positions where people come and stay for a long period of time, and through that normal attrition, we will be able to reduce many of the positions with that normal churn as opposed to having to do layoffs," Luebbering said.
Nonetheless, critics of cutting the state payroll said it seems politicians were seeking to score political points. Bradley Harmon, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 6355, said jobs in the public sector are just as valuable as those in the private sector.
"If you're unemployed because you lost your job at Ford or you're unemployed because you lost your job with the state, you're just as unemployed," Harmon said.