Gov. Jay Nixon used his final State of the State address to once again call on legislators to pass comprehensive ethics reform and to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“I pledge to you that I will do everything I can, with the power entrusted in me, to move us — to move you — to action,” Nixon told a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly on Wednesday night. “Action carries risks. But it’s the risk-takers who make history. Inaction is always easier. But inaction is also a decision with real consequences.”
Nixon, a Democrat, has called for ethics reform every year he’s been in office. Missouri is the only state in the nation with the trio of no caps on campaign contributions, no limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and no waiting period before legislators can become lobbyists after leaving office.
With one year left before Nixon’s term as the state’s governor ends because of term limits, the Republican-dominated Missouri House has moved a series of ethics bills that would, among other things, ban lobbyist gifts and prohibit legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists when they leave office.
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A Senate committee is expected to take those measures up next week.
But, Nixon noted, “we’re a long way from the finish line.”
“The people of Missouri are nobody’s fools. They understand that a donor who writes you a fat check expects something in return,” Nixon said. “They know that if a lobbyist showers you with gifts, or takes you to the country club for cocktails and the surf-and-turf, he’s going to lean on you before dessert.”
On gay rights, Nixon said that “no one should be discriminated against because of who they love.”
Discrimination based on age, race, religion or gender is against the law in Missouri. But those protections don’t extend to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.
That means a person can legally be fired from a job, evicted from an apartment or kicked out of a restaurant for being gay or simply being perceived to be gay.
Nixon called for lawmakers to pass the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBT Missourians in employment, housing and public accommodations.
“It is unacceptable that Missourians can still be fired for being gay,” Nixon said. “That’s wrong, it’s not who we are — and it must change.”
Asked after the speech whether the nondiscrimination act has any chance, Senate President Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, said flatly, “No.”
On the topic of road funding — which lawmakers have struggled to tackle for years — Nixon renewed his call for a gas tax increase and his opposition to transfer money out of other areas of the budget to fund much-needed highway and bridge repairs.
Missouri’s gas tax hasn’t been increased in 20 years.
“I’ve been clear about my position: If you use the roads, you should help pay for them,” Nixon said. “What I don’t support is taking money that should go to schools, law enforcement and mental health and using it to patch potholes.”
Nixon also took on the growing fantasy sports industry, saying it must be reined in to “protect kids and consumers.”
Fantasy sports sites like Fan Duel and Draft Kings have hired a cadre of lobbyists in their effort to formally legalize their industry in Missouri.
“Let’s get real: This is gambling, kids are playing and it’s completely unregulated,” Nixon said. “And there are lobbyists in this building who want to keep it that way. If you’re going to legalize it, we must regulate it and tax it just like we do casinos.”
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, delivered the Republican response to Nixon’s address.
Richardson, whose party holds 116 seats in the 163-member House, said the “hallmark of this governor is talk and not action.”
“Each January he comes to the General Assembly and promises to meaningfully engage on the challenges facing Missouri,” he said. “With few exceptions, he has failed to deliver on that promise.”
The governor’s annual address to the legislators is also when he lays out his vision for the state’s budget. This year, Nixon’s $9.3 billion budget plan includes funding boosts for public education, state colleges and universities, and mental health services.
He called for an $85 million boost in the public education foundation funding formula, for a total of $3.4 billion. The increase is sizable but $425 million short of the total needed to fully fund the state’s K-12 system.
He also called for a $21.1 million increase for early childhood education, bringing the state investment in that program up to $170.8 million, and a $5 million boost for school transportation, for a total of $105.3 million.
“Funding is an essential part of the equation for successful schools,” Nixon said.
Nixon’s budget also calls for a $55.6 million increase for two- and four-year colleges.
“And with this historic investment, our public colleges and universities will once again freeze tuition for Missouri undergraduates this fall,” he said. “They won’t pay a penny more.”
The governor’s budget invests $131 million in additional state and federal funding for the Department of Mental Health-Division of Developmental Disabilities. That includes $44.2 million to increase rates for services provided to people with severe substance use disorders, adults with mental illness, children with severe emotional disturbances and people with developmental disabilities.
An additional $17.3 million will go toward providing dental care to low-income Missourians, and $16.3 million will boost funding to provide services for victims of child abuse and neglect.
“We aren’t all given the same gifts, but we all have the same rights,” Nixon said. “And our service will ultimately be measured at heaven’s doorstep by what we did — or did not do — to help those in need.”
The budget also includes a 2 percent pay raise for state employees, at a cost of $54.1 million, but also reduces the state workforce by 48 jobs.
Since Nixon took office in 2009, the state workforce has been cut by more than 5,100 positions.
The budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1, is also the first to bear the brunt of a tax cut passed by state lawmakers in 2014.
The tax cut is phased in over several years, as long as state revenues grow by $150 million. Acting state budget director Dan Haug said the first phase will kick in on Jan. 1, 2017.
The governor laid out an ambitious agenda, said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, especially on tough issues like ethics reform, gay rights and road funding.
“We know the challenges we face are going to be hard or they would have already been solved,” Holsman said. “Do I think this legislature has the capacity to deal with these issues? Yes. It’s obviously going to be more challenging during an election year. But we have to show up every day and believe we can do it and find common ground.”
Nixon said that when he took over as governor in 2009, “Missouri was staring down the barrel of a crisis — unemployment was skyrocketing, factories were closing, and people were losing their homes and cars.”
There is much more work to do, he said, but the state is far better off today.
“Politics is a horse race, but the stakes are much higher than winning the election,” he said. “The real prize is the opportunity to make life better — for people you don’t know and may never meet. And I am profoundly grateful that the people of Missouri have given me that high honor.”
Covey Eonyak Son contributed to this report.