GEORGE KENNEDY: Adopt cautious optimism after Nixon's State of the State

Thursday, January 31, 2013 | 5:26 p.m. CST

I was already suffering from a toothache, so I decided to listen to KBIA’s broadcast Monday night of Gov. Jay Nixon’s State of the State speech and the Republican rebuttal. It turned out to be an hour well-spent.

The most striking thing about our governor’s talk was that he sounded more Democratic than ever. Mr. Nixon’s first four years in office were marked by small ideas and avoidance of every possible controversy. Now that he has won a second and final term, he let loose with an ambitious vision and even a few challenges to his opponents.

Expand Medicaid, he urged. Double funding for early childhood education. Spend more on kindergarten through college. Invest in a big bond issue for capital improvements. Pay for those bonds by limiting tax credits. And strengthen our weak ethics rules, including limits on campaign contributions.

Sprinkled through the speech were pledges to work collegially with the Republican-dominated legislature.

Then came the Republican response, delivered by House Speaker Tim Jones. He could have summed up his sentiments in one word: No. Except for the bond issue, he placed his veto-proof majority squarely against nearly everything the governor was for. He even added a string of personal criticisms, accusing Gov. Nixon of failure to lead, “ivory-tower isolation,” absenteeism on education improvements – pretty much everything short of child abuse.

But he concluded, “I hope to work successfully with Gov. Nixon.”

Afterward, on a special edition of KBIA’s “Intersection” program, Boone County representatives Chris Kelly and Caleb Jones seemed remarkably, even unjustifiably, upbeat about prospects for the legislative session.

A couple of days later, I called Chris to see whether he really meant that outburst of optimism.

He began with a caution. He’s the kind of incurable optimist, his wife says, who’d wake up Christmas morning to find a bag of horse manure under the tree and set out looking for the pony that must be nearby. That said, he is cautiously hopeful about the two biggest items on this year’s agenda: Medicaid expansion and the bond issue.

The fact-based argument for the former is irrefutable. A study by the MU School of Medicine concludes that for a cost to the state of $333 million over seven years, we’d get an $8.2 billion infusion of federal funds. That would produce 24,000 new jobs the first year, with 22,000 of them sustainable. (That’s the equivalent of the total workforce of Missouri’s 10 Fortune 500 companies.) And those would yield $856 million in new state and local tax revenue from 2014 to 2020.

The stakes for our healthcare-based community are especially high, Chris noted. Without expansion, our hospitals stand to lose $28 million a year in funding. With expansion, they gain $20 million.

More than 200,000 Missourians would become newly eligible for coverage.

Yes, Speaker Jones did say Republicans “will not” expand Medicaid, ranting against the “bloated entitlement system.” But he also said, Chris pointed out, that they will “transform” it. Therein lies ground for compromise and hope.

Politics, or ideology, rather than economics poses the problem, he said. “Rational Republicans are concerned that if they do the rational thing, they’ll get destroyed in the next primary.”

Tim Jones is one of those rational Republicans, he believes. Indeed, the speaker is co-sponsor with Chris of the bill to issue a big bond issue for capital improvements. (Our own Kurt Schaefer, also rational, is a Senate sponsor.)

The size most often mentioned is $750 million. The projects would include new or upgraded facilities at MU and other campuses, replacement of the Fulton state mental hospital and improvements at state parks, including some new sewer systems.

There’s a competing bond issue idea, however. That’s the $1 billion bond for roads, especially I-70. Part of that package is a dedicated 1-cent sales tax increase.

Can those be combined somehow? If not, Chris said, he’d oppose a roads-only approach. If so, we might see actual progress.

I usually feel better after talking with Chris. This time, I found myself teetering on the edge of adopting his optimism. I’m fairly sure, though, that paying close attention to the session will help me get over that.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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