Barbara Shelly

‘Tis the season for pomp, politics and preaching

Updated: 2014-01-25T23:35:21Z

By BARBARA SHELLY

The Kansas City Star

Another week, another State of the State address.

I love these things — the grand entrances by our elected officials; the possibly inaccurate but inevitable pronouncements that the state of the state is strong; the lusty applause from lawmakers of one party balanced by the stony faces of their colleagues across the aisle.

But that’s just me. Of course the State of the States don’t command the same interest as, say, a KU basketball game or Justin Bieber’s perp walk. So for all of you who missed the big moments for Gov. Sam Brownback in Kansas and Gov. Jay Nixon in Missouri over the last two weeks, I am here to present some comparisons.

Best introduction of guests. Nixon claims this honor. Governors customarily invite citizens to attend their speeches as special guests. Brownback held his invitations to a minimum this year; he recognized a leader of the Jobs for America’s Graduates program and two service members from Fort Riley who were wounded in combat.

Nixon was much more effusive. He recognized two state highway patrolmen who had saved the lives of citizens in a flood; a military family; an award-winning teacher from Joplin; and even his own former optometrist, a World War II veteran who benefited from the GI Bill.

Best preaching. Brownback, to be sure. By the end of his speech, he was close to tent revival mode, telling Kansans that “our dependence is not on big government but on a big God that loves us and lives within us,” and “we know the way. God wrote it in our hearts.”

Nixon limited his religious references to a short quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah while exhorting his legislature to expand Medicaid eligibility.

Should governors openly preach while speaking in a public place and addressing their constituents of diverse faiths and followings? Personally, I think not. But if you don’t mind the blurring of church and state, neither does the governor of Kansas.

Best substance. Nixon, and not just because his speech, at nearly 6,200 words, was more than twice as long as Brownback’s.

The Democratic governor of Missouri is simply in a much more expansive position than his Republican counterpart in Kansas. Not bound, so far, by excessive tax cuts, Nixon can use the happy circumstance of rising state revenues to solve problems and announce big plans, like funding schools better, expanding technology in schools and communities and providing more services for developmentally disabled citizens.

Brownback is in the trickier situation of having to explain why less is better. The big income tax cuts that underline the “Kansas renaissance” haven’t significantly enriched average citizens or produced a flood of jobs, but they have drained the state treasury. About the best Brownback could do for an initiative was to propose phasing in money for full-day kindergarten throughout the state, something that should have taken place years ago.

Best provocation. Call this one a tie. Brownback had some very pointed remarks for the state’s Supreme Court judges, warning them not to tell the Legislature how to fund schools, even as five judges sat expressionless listening to his speech. Nixon had Republican legislators seething over his criticism of tax cuts, his siding with teachers, and his direct challenge to the legislature to expand Medicaid limits. It’s looking like a combative year.

Overall best performance. This goes to Nixon. Brownback seemed constrained by the burden of running for re-election this year, and the inconvenient reality that his new budget is only balanced by dipping into the state’s diminishing reserve fund. Whatever the political future holds for Nixon, it doesn’t involve getting along with his Republican adversaries in the legislature. Speeches are a lot more fun when you can cast caution to the winds.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/bshelly.

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