JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's economic development director resigned after failing to win Senate confirmation, and lawmakers Thursday blocked several more of Gov. Jay Nixon's appointments to university, transportation, utility and health insurance boards.
In all, the Republican-led Senate blocked three appointments — to the University of Missouri system governing board, the Missouri Housing Development Commission and the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan board — and allowed the Democratic governor to withdraw others. The highest profile appointment to falter was for Jason Hall as the director of the Department of Economic Development.
Appointees must be confirmed by the Senate this week, or the person cannot be named to that position in state government. Senators return to the Capitol on Monday. The lifetime ban does not apply for those whose nominations were withdrawn, and it appears Hall later can be nominated economic development director because he resigned.
The confirmation process during the past several weeks has been more contentious than usual. Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said it seemed communication between senators and the governor's office seemed to have broken down at some point over the nominees.
Mayer said Hall is bright and articulate but that several Republican senators did not believe the 36-year-old had enough experience to lead the state development agency.
"I didn't take any pleasure in denying him the opportunity to serve as Department of Economic Development director. However, I did have concerns about his lack of experience and his lack of experience with industry and business," said Mayer, R-Dexter.
Hall has served as director since his Dec. 30 appointment and before that was the executive director of the Missouri Technology Corp., a state-created nonprofit organization that aids technology- and science-based businesses. In addition to raising concerns about Hall's business experience, some senators have cited a state audit that criticized the Missouri Technology Corp. as a reason for their reluctance to confirm his appointment.
Nixon said Thursday that Hall will be a "senior member" of his administration. Nixon praised Hall's "strong professional background and extensive experience in helping Missouri businesses create jobs." The nomination was endorsed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other business groups.
Nixon appointed Chris Pieper the acting department director while a search for a permanent director is conducted. Pieper, 33, had served as the department's general counsel from June 2010 until Jan. 18, when he joined Nixon's office as its deputy general counsel. Pieper is the fourth economic development director since Nixon took office in 2009.
Other appointments to stall Thursday were for Columbia attorney Craig Van Matre to the University of Missouri system Board of Curators, former Social Services Director Ron Levy to a state employee health insurance board and Stephen Sauter to the Missouri Housing Development Commission. None will be eligible for those boards.
GOP senators pointed to newspaper opinion pieces written by Van Matre that were critical of Republicans, including one that compared the legislature to a theocracy such as the government in Iran. Lawmakers said freedom of speech is important but that there can be consequences.
"He has every right to offer his opinion on everything, every right," said Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. "And we are given the right as senators to take exception at those writings and then deny his appointment."
Nixon withdrew four appointments Thursday, including the nomination of former Democratic state Sen. Steve Stoll to the Public Service Commission and Joseph Hunt to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.
The Public Service Commission regulates utilities and has five members with two vacancies. Stoll was to replace former Democratic lawmaker Robert Clayton, who was named to a state appeals court. Another spot opened on the Public Service Commission with the resignation of Jeff Davis, who previously was an aide to Republican lawmakers.
Senators said they support Stoll's nomination but wanted Nixon also to appoint a replacement for Davis.
Geographic concerns caused the stumble for Hunt, who is from St. Louis. Senators from southern Missouri said he would have become the third St. Louis-area member serving on the six-member commission.