Jay Nixon plays it safe while Missouri goes downhill
The Kansas City Star
Once there was a governor who was blessed with a ton of political capital, but refused to use it.
This governor held office in a Bible Belt state, so we’ll take advantage of a parable, and say he was like the risk-averse servant in the New Testament who was given resources to invest but who chose to bury them in a hole in the ground. In the end he gained nothing but the wrath of the master who had given him the money.
People, meet Jay Nixon, Democratic governor of Missouri. He is sitting on a war chest of about $7 million. He is a familiar and fondly regarded politician in every nook and cranny of the state. No GOP opponent has yet emerged as a significant threat to his re-election in November.
Nixon may be the most fortunate high-profile Democrat in the Midwest, if not the nation. But like the risk-averse servant, he is reluctant to put his political capital to good use.
Missouri’s status is on the wane. Its schools and universities are underfunded. National rankings consistently place it near the bottom of the 50 states in the amount of money it invests in its citizens’ health and well-being.
Nixon could use the prestige of his office to do something about this sorry state of affairs.
He could throw his support behind a statewide ballot measure to raise the state’s cigarette tax from its national low of 17 cents a pack to a more reasonable 90 cents a pack, gaining up to $423 million a year in additional revenue. But he won’t.
He could urge the legislature to set up a means by which the state could collect money that by law is owed to it — sale taxes on purchases made on-line. But he hasn’t.
Nixon takes strong stands on easy issues, like warning the legislature not to take health benefits away from low-income blind people. He’ll sometimes come down firmly on the right side of a tough issue, as he did Thursday when he vetoed a bill that would have permitted employers and insurers to refuse to pay for birth control in insurance policies.
But the governor is too often found bobbing and weaving in lieu of leading. Of late, he has turned absurdly dodgy on the rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Buckling to hysteria in the Republican-controlled legislature, he put the brakes on efforts by his insurance department to start laying the groundwork for a state health insurance exchange, which is mandated in the new law.
Right before the U.S. Supreme Court was supposed to issue its landmark ruling, Nixon let slip that he opposed the insurance individual mandate. But he never clarified how health insurers could provide affordable policies for sick people without a mandate that healthy people pay into the insurance pool.
The court thrust state governments into the spotlight by ruling that the federal government can’t yank Medicaid allotments from states which opt not to increase their Medicaid limits, as called for in the new law.
Obamacare haters in the Missouri legislature immediately vowed that Missouri would not raise its limits, which currently cover adults at a measly 19 percent of the poverty level.
Nixon could lead on this issue. He could say clearly, as he did in his campaign four years ago, that Missouri’s very low limits are “a wrong, mistaken policy that (have had) a horrific effect on working parents.”
He could say he will do all in his power to persuade the legislature to raise the limits and take advantage of the billions of dollars in federal funds that would pour into Missouri to boost the state’s medical infrastructure.
But when asked this week about the limits, all Nixon would say is “it’s complicated,” and assure us he’s working through it.
In the parable, the servant who buried his assets is ordered cast into darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I don’t see political purgatory in Nixon’s immediate future. But four more years of watching him play it safe will certainly set off teeth-gnashing among his supporters.
Nixon has said that, for him, being governor is a destination job at a destination time. Surely he intends for his legacy to be more than just minding the store.
Invest your political capital, governor. The returns may surprise even yourself.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at bshelly.