In his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly, Gov. Eric Greitens on Tuesday night urged lawmakers to overcome years of gridlock and finally ban lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists.
Greitens, a Republican who had never before held public office, ticked through a long list of policy priorities, from easing regulations on businesses to reworking the state’s welfare system.
But the issue that sat atop his list was government ethics reform.
Speaking to an audience mostly made up of his fellow Republicans, Greitens said that while many legislators who came to Jefferson City “have been good keepers of the public’s trust,” often the will of the people is “obstructed and corrupted by insiders and lobbyists.”
“This is a big place, with a powerful purpose,” he said, “and it has too often been consumed by small goals and petty politics.”
Just a few hours before Greitens’ speech, the Missouri House voted 149-5 to ban most lobbyist gifts to elected officials.
Lawmakers and their staffs collectively accept hundreds of thousands of dollars a year worth of lobbyist-provided meals, booze, trips and event tickets. The House-backed bill would ban individual lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists, although they could still attend lobbyist-funded events as long as every member of the General Assembly is invited at least 72 hours beforehand.
The bill now heads to the Missouri Senate, where the idea has historically run into fierce resistance.
Greitens, who took office Jan. 9, also called for a ban on lawmakers returning to the Capitol as paid lobbyists until they’ve sat out of office for as long as they served. For example, eight years in the Senate would mean eight years before the legislator could become a lobbyist.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, said previously that Greitens’ idea stands no chance of passing.
Greitens also took direct aim at a longtime political nemesis of the Republican Party: labor unions.
He called for Missouri to join states like Kansas and pass a right-to-work law, which would allow employees in unionized workplaces to refuse to pay unions for the cost of being represented. He also asked lawmakers to do away with prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, a St. Louis County Democrat and president of the Missouri State Building and Construction Trades Council, said right-to-work laws are an example of “government overreach and bureaucratic meddling.”
“Right-to-work simply means forcing folks to work for less,” she said. “Less money. Less health coverage. And less opportunity for workers and their families.”
Greitens also urged lawmakers to pass changes to Missouri’s consumer protection law and rework the state’s standard in determining what scientific experts get allowed into trials, saying Missouri’s legal system has hurt business in the state.
The State of the State address is historically when the governor unveils his proposed state budget for the next year. Greitens decided to break with that tradition.
On Monday, he announced $146 million in cuts aimed at balancing the current fiscal year’s budget, with higher education taking the biggest blow. But with House leaders projecting a potential $450 million shortfall for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, Greitens has said he will keep his budget recommendations under wraps until next month.
“What disappoints me is his speech didn’t even mention the biggest issue facing Missouri government, which is our massive budget shortfall,” said state Rep. Jon Carpenter, a Gladstone Democrat.
On education, Greitens’ election in November gave hope to school choice advocates that ideas such as expanded charter schools or tax credits for private school tuition, which have historically floundered in the face of bipartisan resistance, might finally get traction.
One idea that seemed to be gaining momentum was education savings accounts, which are basically publicly funded debit cards that parents could use to pay for tuition to a private or virtual school, buy textbooks, hire tutors or pay for any number of things approved by the state.
On Tuesday, though, Greitens managed to largely avoid controversy by pledging to push for education savings accounts for special needs children but stopping short of calling for them to be available to all Missouri students.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican, said Greitens’ speech was a refreshing break from the last eight years under Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
“This is a guy who’s never been in politics before who has a view that is very much different than what we’ve seen in this building before,” Kehoe said. “It’s really exciting. We have an opportunity to make things great, but now we can’t screw it up.”