While having lunch with a fellow liberal the other day, I was moved to ask a question that’s been bothering me: What do we gain from having a Democratic governor when that governor is Jay Nixon?
My companion said he’d been mulling the same question. We both were embittered by the governor’s retribution against our university for having the gall to try to make up for declining state support by raising tuition a bit beyond his guideline. After Gov. Nixon announced that he would propose a 7 percent cut in the university budget for next year, the curators raised tuition by 5.5 percent (5.8 percent on the flagship campus).
The legislature, led by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, managed to find a little more money and reduce the size of that cut, but the governor poured salt in the wound by withholding 8.1 percent, citing the budgetary impact of recent disasters and making clear that he was exacting a price for crossing him. Apparently, a 5 percent tuition increase would have been OK.
The dollar impact of his vengeance is $4.4 million. The curators last week began mulling a series of possible measures in response. None of the choices is good.
- Cap enrollment, except, of course, for high-paying out-of-state enrollees? Gov. Nixon, who wants to increase college graduations, wouldn’t like that, and tuition has become more important than state aid. (I heard this week that administrators expect 34,000 students on campus this fall, the most ever.)
- Reduce financial aid or impose a surcharge? Students and parents certainly wouldn’t like that.
- Reduce or eliminate the paltry planned pay raises for faculty and staff? Why not? University pay is already at the bottom of its peers, and the increases would hardly be noticeable anyway.
We moved on to grumble about the governor’s refusal even to consider new revenue while approving tax cuts for business. To take the most egregious example, our cigarette tax is the lowest in the country, and raising it would provide millions of dollars while encouraging better health. No deal.
An analysis piece in Monday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrated that others are asking the same question. Jason Hancock wrote that before July 14 the governor will have to decide whether to veto at least three Republican-backed bills — one imposing drug testing on welfare recipients, one lowering the age for concealed carry gun permits and one banning most abortions after 20 weeks.
His decisions, Hancock wrote, “could once again drive a wedge between the one-term Democrat and much of his party’s base.” Or, depending on what decisions he makes, not.
Gov. Nixon was mainly invisible during the legislative session that produced those bills. He played little role in the 2010 election that produced that legislature. He’ll be on the ballot again next year. Will that inspire him to be more, well, Democratic?
There were a couple of clues last week. One was his speech Friday night at the annual gathering of the party’s faithful. Gov. Nixon derided, though he didn’t identify, “right-wing extremists” who play, he said, a destructive role in Missouri politics. He won a standing ovation. Of course, you could say — I would say — that’s just throwing a hunk of red meat before a pack of starving carnivores.
A more substantive clue came earlier that day when he vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have required photo identification of voters. That’s one of those superficially plausible requirements that actually addresses a nonexistent problem and would have made voting more difficult for thousands of older and poorer citizens. We all know how people with those characteristics are more inclined to vote.
When Matt Blunt was governor, he signed just such a bill. The state Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional.
A few weeks ago, Gov. Nixon also vetoed a bill that would have made it harder for victims of workplace discrimination to seek redress. The boy governor would have signed that one in a heartbeat.
So there is, in fact, some evidence that having even a cautious and conservative Democrat in the governor’s office does matter. I’m going to guess that he’ll also veto the abortion restriction and the drug-test requirement. He’s a gun guy in a gun-loving state, so he’ll probably sign the concealed weapon bill.
Maybe he’ll even heed the curators’ plea and rescind the withholding from the university budget. I’m not counting on that, though. As my lunch companion, who spends a lot of time in Jeff City, observed, the governor really, really dislikes being crossed.
That’s a function more of personality than of partisanship.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.