Gov. Eric Greitens has been working hard to put scandals that have besieged his administration behind him.
He’s not getting much help from his fellow Republicans in the legislature.
A group of GOP state senators who have frequently clashed with Greitens are openly calling for a legislative investigation into a litany of charges that have tormented the governor’s office — from Greitens’ use of a secret text messaging app to allegations that he threatened to blackmail a woman with whom he had an affair.
Meanwhile, some of the governor’s main priorities laid out his $28 billion budget plan appear to be dead on arrival, with GOP leaders pouring cold water on proposed cuts to higher education and a plan to borrow $250 million to pay tax refunds, among others.
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As Greitens prepares to hit the road Monday to lay out his vision for income tax cuts, his standing in the Capitol appears to be at its lowest point since he took office a little more than a year ago.
“We don’t need the governor to do the work the Constitution requires that we do,” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican and frequent Greitens critic. “We don’t need his help passing legislation. We don’t need his help passing a budget.”
Greitens laid out the skeleton of his $28 billion budget recommendation on Jan. 22. Among its highlights was a proposed $70 million cut in funding for public universities and colleges.
It’s an idea that doesn’t seem to have any support among Republican legislative leaders.
“We’re not going to allow those cuts to happen,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican. “In an era where everyone’s hollering about a trained workforce, cutting higher education, we think that’s probably not the best way to do it.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Dan Brown, a Rolla Republican, noted that lawmakers have cut higher ed funding several years in a row already.
“We can’t go to the higher education money pot every year to balance budgets,” Brown said.
Greitens also wanted to borrow up to $250 million to ensure that tax refunds are paid on time. Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, found that Missouri has been slower to pay taxpayers their state tax refunds under Greitens than previous administrations.
Richard said a similar idea was floated by former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in 2012.
“We thought that was a bad idea then,” Richard said. “So it continues to be a bad idea. We’re not going to do that.”
House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican, questioned whether the proposal is even legal.
“It was creative,” Fitzpatrick said, “but it isn’t something that I feel real comfortable with on the constitutionality issue.”
Lawmakers said $25 million that Greitens wants for a matching infrastructure grant program should instead help fund higher education or other priorities. And the governor’s plan to tie state employee raises to “civil service reform” — an idea for which he’s yet to lay out any details — was met with confusion.
“What the hell does that mean?” Brown said.
Ultimately, the legislature will ignore the governor and rewrite the entire budget, said Sen. Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican.
“There’s a lot in there that is unnecessary,” Rowden said in a radio interview. “The governor’s budget is going to be largely ignored. We are closer to our constituents and we will write a budget that is more reflective of their priorities.”
Tax cut tour
The governor promised in his State of the State address to lay out a tax cut proposal that he said would be “the boldest state tax reform in America.”
That plan is supposed to be released Monday, and he is to travel the state, including a stop Tuesday in Riverside, to sell it to Missourians.
Yet while a spate of tax-cut bills has been introduced in the legislature, and GOP majorities have historically been receptive to tax cut proposals, Richard has made clear he has concerns about passing any bill that could further damage the legislature’s ability to fund critical state services.
“I’m skeptical about tax cuts when we are cutting higher education and we’re having a conversation about transportation,” Richard said. “We’ve got to be able to provide for that safety net and the things that we’re required to do.”
An income tax cut passed in 2014 that phases in over time will reduce state revenues by nearly $250 million in the next fiscal year, according to state budget director Dan Haug.
“This is a tremendous problem for Missouri moving forward,” said Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Columbia Democrat who serves on the House budget committee.
Kindrick noted that the economy is performing well and unemployment is low, yet the state is still facing a tight budget. A recession, he said, would be “disastrous” for Missouri’s finances.
“My fear is that years from now, Kansas lawmakers will look at us and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not Missouri,’ ” he said, a reference to Kansas legislators voting last year to rescind tax cuts passed in 2012 that had caused massive budget shortfalls in that state.
Greitens is currently under criminal investigation by the prosecutor in St. Louis over allegations that he threatened to blackmail a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015. He’s accused of taking a nude photo of the woman while she was blindfolded and her hands were tied, and then vowing to make the photo public if she ever revealed the affair.
Greitens has admitted to the affair but vehemently denied the blackmail allegations.
The governor is also under investigation by the state attorney general’s office. That inquiry is focused on determining whether Greitens and his staff illegally destroyed public records by using Confide, an app that erases messages after they are read and prevents someone from saving, forwarding, printing or taking a screenshot of texts.
On Thursday, a handful of Republican state senators expressed concern that the slow pace of those investigations will leave a dark cloud hanging over the 2018 legislative session and make it harder for government to function.
“We as a legislative body cannot just sit and wait for other people to take care of things that are affecting us,” said Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican.
“At some point some more in-depth investigation is going to have to happen,” said Sen. Doug Libla, a Poplar Bluff Republican.
The legislature may have a role in the matter, the GOP lawmakers argued, because there are allegations that the governor’s taxpayer-funded staff may have tried to intervene to keep news of the affair from becoming public.
Both Romine and Libla have clashed with Greitens in the past. But both insist the calls for a legislative investigation are an attempt to put the scandal to rest, one way or another. The call for an investigation comes on the heels of four House Republicans and a Republican senator demanding that the governor resign.
Richard, the Senate president, said there will be no investigation in his chamber until the prosecuting attorney in St. Louis finishes the criminal probe.
“We’re not going to get in the middle of an ongoing investigation,” he said.
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat, agreed that lawmakers shouldn’t interfere with investigations that are already underway.
But House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, wasn’t as quick to dismiss the idea.
“Our leadership team and I will continue to evaluate and monitor the facts,” he said, “and give the situation the seriousness it deserves.”
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat, said she was frustrated with the reaction her Republican colleagues had to the scandals surrounding the governor.
Chappelle-Nadal was censured by the Senate last year after she said on Facebook that she hoped President Donald Trump would be assassinated.
She deleted the comment, which was posted on her private Facebook page, and publicly apologized, saying, “I made a mistake. And I’m owning up to it.” Yet she was still censured and removed from all of her legislative committee appointments.
Chappelle-Nadal, who is black, noted that the House has not taken any action against a white male Republican lawmaker who called for vandals of a Confederate monument to be lynched. And now some Republicans, she said, are willing to forgive the governor for his behavior.
“Why is it,” she asked, “that Caucasian men who make human mistakes are treated differently than women of color?”