Nixon address focuses on education, jobs

Despite a message of bipartisanship, some proposals still face opposition.
Gov. Jay Nixon stands behind the door to the Missouri House chamber waiting to be escorted in to deliver his State of the State address on Tuesday in Jefferson City.

Gov. Jay Nixon gave his first State of the State address Tuesday night, proposing cuts to more than 1,300 public positions and the addition of several programs to expand jobs, health care access and the affordability of higher education.

In the speech, Nixon emphasized bipartisan cooperation — a major theme so far in this legislative session — but not every proposal he mentioned was met by a standing ovation from Republican legislators.

During the speech, Nixon reiterated plans to maintain the funding level for state colleges and universities in the next fiscal year in exchange for the universities’ promise to not increase student tuition, which he announced last week.

“In the past, when the state has faced challenging economic times, higher education has often been the first target for cuts,” Nixon said. “Not this time.”

The reception to Nixon’s plan was more enthusiastic from Democrats than Republicans. Members of the GOP have expressed concerns about the feasibility of maintaining appropriations levels with expected budget shortfalls of up to $300 million.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said Nixon proposed his plan prematurely. He said increased access to higher education for Missourians is a "strong point of agreement" between the party and the new governor.

“We all agree it’s a lofty goal,” Shields said.

MU College Democrats President Brian Roach and MU College Republicans Chairman Jonathan Ratliff agreed Nixon’s higher education proposals would benefit MU students.

“I support the governor’s proposition on higher education,” Ratliff said. “I think our student fees are already high enough.”

Roach said the tuition cap would protect students entering the workforce from struggling under weighty student loans.

“The last people we want to hurt are the students,” Roach said.

Nixon said he would create the Caring for Missourians program, an initiative to work with two- and four-year schools to train health care workers. That announcement gained support from both sides of the aisle, but Nixon’s other proposals involving health care seemed more divisive.

Nixon’s plans to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and to put 62,000 Missourians on state health care coverage gained standing ovations from the Democratic side, but many Republicans stayed seated and held their applause.

“Reducing the number of uninsured Missourians is not just the right thing to do for our neighbors,” Nixon said. “It’s the smart thing to do for our economy.”

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said the legislature would try to find other ways to make health care more affordable.

“We’re not going back to the days of the past and make it a big welfare program,” Richard said.

Nixon’s proposals to create more jobs in the state received the most bipartisan approval during the speech. He spent more time discussing employment in his address than any other single issue.

He outlined his Show-Me JOBS plan, which would grant low-interest loans to small businesses. He said he would also expand the Quality Jobs Act, which provides incentives for businesses to offer above-average wages and health care.

Nixon said he also ordered the creation of an Automotive Jobs Task Force to try to revitalize the Missouri automotive industry.

“Giving up on Missouri’s auto industry is not an option,” Nixon said.

Despite his calls for increased jobs in the state through government programs, Nixon proposed the public sector reduce its employment opportunities.

Nixon unveiled his budget plan for the next fiscal year before the address, proposing a “leaner and more efficient government.” He said cutting 1,300 government positions and freezing unfilled positions would eliminate nearly $200 million in overhead costs.

“Make no mistake, I value our state workers, and these cuts will not be easy,” Nixon said.

He also said 50 state programs would be eliminated in the new budget.

The governor promised not to increase taxes on Missouri households and businesses, instead cutting around $200 million in public positions to help offset an expected budget shortfall in fiscal year 2010.

Nixon mentioned his administration had been working closely with the administration of President Barack Obama to coordinate a proposed stimulus package under debate in the U.S. House of Representatives that would give billions to the states to prevent cutbacks in spending.

In his budget proposal, $809 million from the stimulus package is counted as general revenue funds. This occurred in fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when other forms of federal stimulus had been provided to the state.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said part of the governor’s proposal banks on the federal stimulus package and said he would support separating appropriations in the budget that come from federal stimulus dollars from Missouri’s general revenue.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said he was surprised by the additional programs the governor proposed for the budget. He said the state could still face shortfalls of $150 million to $200 million.

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