ANALYSIS: Nixon waited, mediated on Missouri legislation this session

Sunday, May 15, 2011 | 5:00 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — On the final day of the 2011 legislative session, Gov. Jay Nixon's top-level staff and economic development officials were deployed across the Missouri Capitol to help forge a compromise among lawmakers on a bill revamping the state's tax incentives for businesses.

It was an effort that some lawmakers said was lacking earlier in the session, when Nixon appeared to stand on the sidelines before emerging at politically opportune moments to take positions on several contentious topics — the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, the revision of a voter-approved law on dog breeders and the imposition of new restrictions on nuisance lawsuits against large hog farms.

Nixon's style of leadership was at times frustrating to lawmakers — some even decried it as a lack of leadership — yet he emerged in most cases with the appearance of a commonsense problem-solver capable of uniting diverse interests.

Nixon's approach also allowed him to avoid taking potentially risky political positions until it became essential to do so.

"Like a poker player coming in late and sticking with the original ante until he is more certain the cards are going to fall in a particular direction, he sort of bided his bids until he had a better notion of how the hands were shaping up," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The best example of Nixon's wait-and-see approach occurred on legislation that repealed and replaced key parts of a voter-backed initiative that imposed stringent new requirements on dog breeders.

Not until lawmakers had passed a bill overturning many of the voter-approved decisions did Nixon's administration announce that it had convened various state-based agricultural and animal welfare groups to come up with a compromise plan.

Lawmakers, who had received hundreds — even thousands — of e-mails and phone calls on the issue, were frustrated and bewildered by the governor's late entry into the debate. Yet they worked with Nixon.

On a rather unusual day, Nixon signed the bill originally passed by lawmakers. Then the House and Senate passed a new version of the dog-breeding legislation. By the end of the day, Nixon had also signed that legislation — replacing the law that had only hours earlier replaced the voter-approved law.

A similar scenario played out on legislation restricting nuisance lawsuits filed by neighbors upset about the odors wafting from large-scale hog farms.

Nixon again waited until after lawmakers had sent him the bill before he took a public position. This time, Nixon vetoed the bill with suggestions to lawmakers about how they could address his concerns. The House and Senate passed a second bill with those revisions, and Nixon quickly signed it into law.

"It would have been nice if he'd have come in a little bit more early and took a stand a little more early," said Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla. "His suggestions have been good, but we would have liked him at the table a little bit sooner."

Earlier in the session, Nixon also waited until the final moment to intervene in support of legislation renewing Missouri's participation in a program that provides federally funded jobless benefits to people who have been out of work for a year-and-a-half. Only after senators had missed the deadline to pass the bill without an interruption in people's jobless benefits did Nixon hold a news conference calling upon lawmakers to pass it.

They eventually did so, after Senate leaders forged a compromise with four filibustering Republican senators who had been trying to make a point about the growth of federal spending and deficits.

Although some senators said they were generally satisfied with Nixon's level of interaction during the session, other Republicans and Democrats in the House said they wished he would have been more proactive in communicating his position on contentious issues. Nixon, a Democrat, never addressed the House Democratic caucus during the legislative session, said House Minority Floor Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City.

"When you have a law that gets passed and you have to go back and do a very public oops, it never really instills a whole lot of confidence that everybody is on the same page," Talboy said.

Nixon's staff was involved in the ultimately unsuccessful negotiations on an economic incentive bill. But House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said he would have preferred to see even greater involvement from Nixon's office.

"On a multitude of issues, I think his engagement could have been helpful," said Tilley. "But I'm not here as speaker to tell the governor how to be governor."

Nixon, a former state senator and attorney general, has often expressed his appreciation for the legislative process and has routinely declined to take positions on bills before they pass. Asked about the governor's view on an issue, his staff's typical response is that the office will thoroughly review the legislation if it reaches his desk.

During the 2011 legislative session — with continued budget troubles and a historically large Republican legislative majority — it probably served Nixon well to take a reserved, non-confrontational approach, Robertson said.

In his post-session remarks, Nixon spoke of the legislature and governor's office as one team.

"Together, we have made real progress this year, and we did it by reaching across the aisle," Nixon said.

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