WHAT OTHERS SAY: Second term poses big test for Gov. Jay Nixon

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

In his successful campaign for a second term, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon boasted about "getting things done."

Under his leadership, the state had cut government spending, his ads noted. It had rebounded from natural disasters. His administration had produced four balanced budgets with no tax increases.

That's a solid enough resume, but hardly the stuff of greatness.

Candidate Nixon, a Democrat, talked a lot about hunting and fishing. He steered clear of any discussion about applying the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act in Missouri. He rarely, if ever, mentioned his party affiliation.

Nixon campaigned the way he had governed — avoiding hard issues, playing it safe.

He wouldn't even offer a glimmer of support for a ballot initiative to raise Missouri's 17-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, by far the lowest of any state. The governor said nary a word as the attempt to improve the state's health and finances narrowly went down in a blaze of deception, stoked by convenience store and off-brand cigarette lobbyists.

Playing it safe has gotten Nixon elected four times as state attorney general and twice as governor in an increasingly Republican state.

But it won't cement his legacy. And it won't help Missouri, or its schools, or the citizens who need a hand up if they are to compete and even survive in an increasingly mean environment.

In his second term, which begins with his swearing in and inauguration ceremonies today, Nixon needs to step up.

Fortunately, there are signs that he is ready to do that.

A few weeks after he easily beat Republican businessman Dave Spence, Nixon announced that his 2014 budget would include federal money to vastly expand the state's Medicaid program.

That is the right move. Missouri's Medicaid limits, slashed by Nixon's predecessor, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, are among the lowest in the nation.

A working parent can earn no more than 19 percent of the poverty level — an annual pay of just more than $4,000 for a family of four — to qualify for the state's health insurance program.

Nixon had pledged to raise the limits in his first campaign, and tried to do so in his first year as governor. But irrational Republican opposition derailed his efforts.

Republican lawmakers will continue to oppose Medicaid expansion, even though expanding eligibility as called for in the federal Affordable Care Act would help as many as 300,000 Missourians secure health insurance, act as an economic engine and free up millions of dollars in expenses the state now pays for health care.

Helping low-income Missourians obtain financial and medical security through health insurance plans would be an achievement for which a governor would be remembered. The extent to which he is willing to fight for a Medicaid expansion will be a test of Nixon's mettle, and will shape his legacy.

Nixon also has been sending out encouraging signals that he intends to become more of an education governor in his second term. Last week, he proposed increasing the minimum school year by six days. He is also calling for increased funding for preschool education, and for money for college scholarships. All are excellent moves.

Nixon also must find a way to increase Missouri's unacceptably low funding levels for its colleges and universities.

As he begins what probably will be his final term in a Missouri statewide office, speculation abounds about Nixon's future. He could run for a U.S. Senate seat. His success as a Democrat in a Republican state sometimes gets him mentioned as a prospect for a national ticket.

But Nixon has gone as far as he can with the play-it-safe strategy. He needs to go big. The future of the state which he has served for most of his adult life depends on it.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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