JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Eric Greitens took a reflective tone Jan. 10 during his State of the State address, lauding his first-year successes while offering little specifics on policy initiatives he wishes to achieve this year.
In front of a full House gallery at the Capitol, Greitens sang the praises of Missouri’s economy, saying it has the lowest unemployment rate in the past 17 years and is outpacing the nation in job growth.
“Over the past year, we have devoted the energy and attention of our office to putting Missourians back to work,” Greitens said. “We are bringing good-quality jobs back to Missouri.”
For the second year in a row, Greitens didn’t announce a proposed budget in his address. He offered vague policy objectives to lawmakers, asking the legislature to push through bills addressing taxes, ethics reform, deregulation and foster care.
He announced he would lay out a tax reform proposal the following week, calling it the “boldest state tax reform in America.”
“With your help, we will lower taxes for working families and make it easier for business to come to Missouri and create jobs,” Greitens said. “And we will do it in a way that is fiscally sound, maintains our state’s triple-A credit rating, and does not burden our children with debt.”
House Speaker Todd Richardson in a statement after the address said the House is ready to work on tax reform and is confident something can get done.
“The House has a strong desire to work on tax reform that reduces the burden for working families,” Richardson said, “and I look forward to the governor laying out his plan in the coming weeks.”
The sophomore governor secured key legislative wins last year with the passage of several bills relating to labor, workplace discrimination lawsuits and anti-abortion rights. Those wins came amid a tense relationship with the Missouri Senate, which has carried over to the 2018 session.
He’s faced criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for his lack of transparency in regard to campaign finance and his use of dark money funds, and his handling of the appointment of five members to the Missouri Board of Education. Greitens ran on a campaign of ethics reform, and shortly after taking office signed an executive order banning gifts from lobbyists to state employees in the executive branch.
While the legislature continues to work on any kind of gift ban — which has previously stalled in the Senate — Greitens urged lawmakers during his address to, at the least, not accept any gifts in the meantime. It drew meager applause from lawmakers.
“We need to slam shut the door between the legislature and lobbyists, and we need to pass term limits for every statewide officeholder,” Greitens said.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, that would limit most lobbyist gifts received initial approval in the House. A similar bill last year also sponsored by Alferman received a hearing in a Senate committee, but sat untouched for the rest of the session. It’s unclear whether the Senate is prepared to push through any sort of ethics reform this session.
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, said Alferman’s bill is like “putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound,” and that legislators need to go all-in on ethics reform.
“I think at this point if we’re going to do true reform, we need to do a 100-percent gift ban,” Beatty said.
Some Republicans are opposed to this idea, saying it would result in “gotcha” moments, where they receive a gift without realizing it. Beatty disagrees.
“We’re legislators. We’re held to a higher standard, and if there’s no gifts to be given,” she said, “I’m not sure how you get in a gotcha moment, because either you took it or you didn’t.”
As for tax cuts, Beatty said she was concerned about what they might mean for Missouri’s economy.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know what those tax cuts are, but my concern is, what are we going to have to cut in order to get these tax cuts?” Beatty said. “Are we going to become Kansas?”
There are plenty of details still to be hashed out between Republicans and Democrats in both chambers on several key issues. Greitens’ main message for Missouri residents, though, is one that he’s delivered numerous times.
“Tonight, we can look back with pride and look forward with confidence,” Greitens said. “The state of our state today reflects what the state of our people has always been: Missouri is stronger, and she is getting stronger.”