The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

December 9, 2013

Phill Brooks, columnist: Governor Nixon seems to have changed his tactics

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — This past week we saw a major change in the tactics used by Missouri’s governor to deal with the state’s General Assembly.

Without that change, Jay Nixon might not have had a chance at what could be one of his greatest governmental achievements — attracting Boeing to make one of the biggest industrial investments in Missouri history.

Throughout Nixon’s six years as governor, legislators from both parties have complained about Nixon’s aloofness from the legislative process and from legislators themselves.

A few years back, visibly frustrated legislative leaders almost begged the governor to tell them what he would approve to fix the state’s insolvent fund that covers health care and rehabilitation for workers reinjured on the job.

Nixon had vetoed the legislature’s first try at a solution, without details as to what he would approve. But nothing came from the pleas of the legislature’s Republican leaders.

Democratic leaders and the chair of the Legislature’s Black Caucus have voiced similar frustrations to me that they’ve been left in the dark about the governor’s plans, thoughts or objectives.

But with the Boeing package facing serious problems in Missouri’s Senate, Nixon’s detachment from getting involved in the details of the legislative process changed dramatically.

In the Senate, a group of fiscal hawks had threatened to block a vote unless the governor expanded the special session call to include corresponding cuts in existing tax credits awarded to developers.

Tax credits for preservation of historic buildings and construction of low-income housing are not controlled by the appropriations process. As a result, they have been eating a rapidly growing hole in the state’s budget.

While Nixon has called for changes in tax credits, he has avoided personal intervention when the issue came before the Legislature.

But that tactic changed with Boeing. Nixon and his staff took a hands-on approach that I had not seen before.

When the Senate took up the Boeing bill, the chamber stopped work for long stretches of the day to let key legislators work out provisions with the governor’s staff.

And behind the scenes, unknown to many, five of the Senate’s strongest advocates for tax-credit changes held a closed-door, private session with Nixon in his office while the Senate was in session that day.

They did not get the governor to agree to include the thorny issue of tax credits in the special session call.

What they got, they say, was a personal promise that Nixon would be more actively involved and engaged with next year’s legislative session to find a solution to the tax credit problem. That promise of changing tactics was enough. They allowed a vote.

I’m not sure those five really would have talked long enough to block a vote by their colleagues. But more than one of the group indicated that the sincerity of Nixon’s promise made the difference.

“Without an understanding of how we are going to get a handle around our broken tax-credit system, I was not comfortable in allowing this broken process to move forward,” said Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah.

Beyond that specific agreement, there was something else, less tangible but potentially of broader consequence from that meeting. Perhaps a working relationship has been forged.

“What we saw in the special session was a real focus, a legislative focus, from the governor’s office that we’ve not seen before,” said Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, and one of the participants in that Wednesday meeting. “He was engaged not just in the idea, but in the actual understanding of the legislative process and working hand-and-glove with lawmakers in ways he has not done before.”

From Lamping and the others at that Senate meeting, there was a warmth in their descriptions of that conversation with Nixon that reminded me of the successful relationships governors like Kit Bond and John Ashcroft were able to forge with legislatures controlled by the opposition party.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps. He is the Statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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