ANALYSIS: Nixon pitches jobs package — but is it his plan?

Sunday, July 31, 2011 | 5:27 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The centerpiece legislation for Missouri's upcoming special session now has a name: the "Made in Missouri Jobs Package."

Gov. Jay Nixon bestowed the name upon the plan this past week while traveling the state to rally support for it. Of course, Nixon is not actually the one who came up with the plan. Or is he?

Over the past few weeks, Missouri's Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders have been taking turns putting their insignia on an overhaul of the state's tax incentives that would create enticements for certain businesses, while simultaneously scaling back some existing tax credits.

Although not a single vote has been cast, the governor and many lawmakers already perceive the package to be a political winner — especially heading into an election year in which jobs and the economy appear likely to dominate the discourse. For any incumbent hoping to win in November 2012, it will be essential to show that he or she is not only concerned about creating jobs, but has also done something to that effect.

Thus, the situation at the Missouri Capitol, where "they're kind of jockeying to see who can take credit," said Jeff Milyo, an MU professor who focuses on political economics.

The governor's office and key legislators all deny they care about who gets credit for the legislation, but consider this series of events:

  • May 13: Despite negotiating to the final day, the Legislature adjourns without passing a bill overhauling the state's business incentives. Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer says he already has had discussions with Nixon about the potential for a special session. Nixon tells reporters there must first be consensus among lawmakers on a specific job-creation plan.
  • June: A group of House and Senate members periodically discuss details of a potential bill. The governor's office says its staff also is involved.
  • July 7: Nixon invites legislative leaders to meet with him "to finalize a strategy" for legislation on business incentives. Mayer and House Speaker Steven Tilley respond that Nixon's invitation is premature. They say lawmakers will first develop a plan, then meet with Nixon and ask him to call a special session.
  • July 18: Nixon announces he will deliver a "major policy address relating to business development strategies" on July 21 in St. Louis and Kansas City.
  • July 20: In a series of hastily called news conferences in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia, Mayer, Tilley and other lawmakers announce they have agreed on a package of business incentives and tax credit changes for a special session. Moments later, Nixon's office says he will call a special session.
  • July 21: Nixon delivers his previously announced speech, outlining many of the same priorities as lawmakers and saying the special session will occur in September.
  • July 25: Nixon meets with Mayer, Tilley and other lawmakers about the proposed legislation for the special session.
  • July 27: Nixon travels to Springfield and the eastern Missouri town of Elsberry to tout the plan, which he dubs the "bipartisan Made in Missouri Jobs Package."
  • July 28: Republican lawmakers distribute copies of a draft bill to colleagues; they say Nixon also has received a copy.

The apparent political positioning highlights several realities, said Richard Fulton, a longtime political science professor at Northwest Missouri State University.

The first general premise is that a governor will always have a larger bully pulpit than lawmakers, will probably be one of the few state politicians that residents recognize, and thus can easily lay claim to any popular policy enacted during his administration, Fulton said. With their largest legislative majorities in decades, Republicans also must demonstrate accomplishments to voters in 2012 or risk losing seats, he said.

At the midpoint of 2011, Missouri's unemployment rate remained just under 9 percent — an improvement from a year or two ago but still significantly higher than its pre-recession levels. Thus, Republican state lawmakers and Nixon both need to lay claim to a plan to create jobs.

"It's the eternal game of both of them knowing that jobs is the key, and both of them trying to maneuver that this is ours," Fulton said.

Politically, it's perception that matters. That perhaps helps explain Nixon's penchant for naming job-creation plans. His inaugural "Show Me Jobs Plan" debuted in 2009. In 2010, his economic proposals included the "Missouri First" and "Training for Tomorrow" plans. This year, Nixon had been pushing the "Compete Missouri" jobs initiative that he now says falls within the "Made in Missouri Jobs Package."

Yet some economists have long doubted the ability of targeted state tax breaks to live up to their names.

"Any economist worth their salt is going to tell you those things don't have the kind of economic impact and job-creating impact that politicians like to claim," Milyo said.

The plan drafted for Missouri's special session would pare back tax credits for housing developers, renovators of historic buildings and low-income elderly and disabled residents who live in rented homes. Instead, it would create incentives for companies that export goods through the St. Louis airport and operate large computerized data centers or that focus on scientific or high-tech industries. Organizers of big-time amateur sporting events also could get new tax breaks.

Despite the enthusiasm of Missouri's politicians, Milyo remains skeptical.

"In general, if these activities aren't going to locate here without subsidies, that's probably because they're really not well suited to be here," he said.

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