Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is never short on initiatives.
He’s got the Show-Me Heroes Initiative to put returning veterans to work. He recently rolled out MoHealthWINS to prepare community college students for health careers.
In a meeting with The Kansas City Star’s editorial board Tuesday, Nixon recounted more initiatives and characterized them as “working the problem.” Clearly, he wants his administration to be judged by the sum of its many parts.
The Democratic governor has cause to be proud of the way he has steered the state through a historic economic crisis. As he noted, Missouri has a triple-A bond rating. Savings in highway maintenance expenses will free up $500 million for roads and bridges in the next few years. Nixon’s team has created lasting efficiencies in state government.
But in a sense, the difficult economy has given Nixon cause to settle for small victories and cautious thinking.
“It’s a time when you need to be careful but steadfast,” he said. “You’re hitting a lot of singles to get through.”
That approach works up to a point. However, it won’t make a dent in Missouri’s big, long-term problems.
One is the state’s inability to sufficiently fund its colleges and universities. Another is its high incidence of chronic, preventable health conditions, which diminish productivity and quality of life while costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
Nixon could help tackle those issues by lending his support to a broad-based coalition that is working on a ballot initiative to substantially increase Missouri’s cigarette tax, which at 17 cents a pack is by far the lowest in the nation. An increase to 90 cents a pack, as proposed, would bring in badly needed revenue and ultimately result in healthier citizens and fewer Medicaid costs.
But the governor hasn’t weighed in, and based on his comments Tuesday he isn’t inclined to do so.
There is “a good argument” for raising the tax, Nixon conceded, but added that, “I don’t think we’re going to solve our problems by sticking our hands in people’s pockets and taking money out.”
The big flaw in that argument is that families do pay when government fails to invest. Tuition rates go up, for instance, and taxpayers often foot the bill for medical problems that could have been headed off by strong public health initiatives.
Nixon said he’s “not ready to say” yet whether he supports tolls for Interstate 70. That perhaps is understandable, as the push for tolls is only starting to gain traction, and deserves study. But the governor at some point will have to weigh in on highway funding.
Nixon is willing to goad the Republican-dominated state legislature into working on a measure that should be easy — another try at cleaning up the state’s notoriously lax campaign-finance law.
But, disappointingly, he said he intends to take a pass on the trickier issue of setting up a health insurance exchange, as called for in the federal Affordable Care Act. That may be smart politics in an election year, but failure to act now will leave Missouri to play catch-up once a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the federal law is resolved.
Nixon is up for re-election in November but so far has not drawn a top-tier challenger. Regrettably, that good fortune has not inspired the governor to act more boldly.
To pick up on Nixon’s sports analogy, singles are fine. But if brighter days are ahead for Missouri, as the governor reasonably contends, we look forward to seeing him go long more often.
Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.