JEFFERSON CITY — Nearly a year ago, Missouri’s job situation appeared to be one of Gov. Bob Holden’s greatest liabilities. Now, Holden is trying to turn it into one of his greatest strengths.
What a difference a year can make.
In January 2003, Republicans in control of the legislature for the first time in a half century were joining with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce to criticize Holden for Missouri’s first-place ranking in job losses in 2002.
During that year, Missouri lost more than 70,000 jobs, more per capita than any other state, the Chamber of Commerce said.
The business lobby and Republican lawmakers seemed to cite the figure almost daily during the 2003 legislative session as reason for new pro-business laws, such as greater restrictions on personal-injury claims and lawsuits — both for on- and off-the-job accidents.
Holden opposed parts of the Republican business initiatives as an affront to individuals’ rights. And his administration accused Republicans of picking a comparison period that put Missouri’s job situation in the worst possible light.
Still, it was hard to argue with the facts. And huge job losses never bode well for an incumbent governor, no matter the reason for the layoffs.
As January 2004 approaches, however, it is Holden who is proudly citing job figures for the past year. From January through October 2003, Holden’s administration says Missouri gained 18,000 jobs — this while national employment declined by 220,000 jobs.
The growth in Missouri’s seasonally adjusted nonfarm employment during that time was 0.61 percent — a figure that may not sound stellar. But it’s better than seven out of Missouri’s eight neighboring states and in the top third of the nation, according to a recent report by the Department of Economic Development.
Many of the successes cited by Holden in a year-end interview were related to jobs.
He noted his administration’s role in persuading Ford Motor Co. to retain its Hazelwood assembly plant and add a new line of vehicles at its Claycomo plant. He also cited American Airlines’ decision to keep its Kansas City overhaul base and H&R Block’s decision to build its new headquarters in downtown Kansas City, among other successes.
Asked about his re-election campaign platform in 2004, Holden mentioned education, followed quickly by jobs and the economy.
“We’ve laid a lot of foundations here, so as this economy turns around we can take advantage of it,” Holden said.
Leaders at the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, whom Holden publicly chastised in 2003 for painting a doom-and-gloom image of the state, are as pleased as Holden about the increase in jobs this past year.
In fact, the chamber’s fiscal-affairs director, Ray McCarty, said federal figures show Missouri might have gained more than 30,000 jobs from January through October.
But McCarty attributes that to the tax cuts backed by President Bush and the general resurgence of the national economy, not to any policies of Holden’s administration.
He also notes that Missouri is still 40,000 jobs short of where it was in January 2002.
Many of those lost jobs were in manufacturing, which — because of the evolution of the economy toward more high-tech and information-based businesses — may never come back in their original form.
Despite 2003’s rebound in employment, chamber lobbyists and GOP leaders still plan to push in the 2004 legislative session for some of the same measures they justified last year in light of the dismal employment figures, including new limits on personal injury claims and lawsuits.
“Because you have a gain in jobs, I don’t think you need to say, ‘We don’t need to do anything to keep businesses here anymore,”‘ McCarty said. “If we’re starting to grow jobs, we can make (Missouri) a more attractive place” with better business-friendly laws.