Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL235.PRB - Courage
Navy SEALS are known for their courage in training and combat.
So when Missouri's governor-elect, Eric Greitens, gives his inaugural address, I'll be listening to hear how he demonstrates that courage in governmental leadership.
Does he directly address the major, but politically dangerous problems facing this state? Or, does he give an inaugural speech I've heard so often filled with lofty rhetoric, but devoid of dangerous details?
Only twice can I remember an incoming governor demonstrating courage in an inaugural address.
Mel Carnahan took up the challenge by echoing his campaign focus on education that included the politically dangerous idea of raising taxes for schools.
Bob Holden embraced the challenge when he spoke in his inaugural address about the need for a consensus for highway funding in words that clearly implied higher taxes.
Carnahan succeeded. He won passage of his education tax -- and without the political safety net of his campaign pledge for voter approval.
Holden failed. His inaugural speech calling for a solution to Missouri's transportation problems went nowhere.
Unlike Carnahan, Holden faced a Republican legislative majority that had no interest in expanding government spending.
Holden compounded the problem by calling for a major tax increase to increase spending for other government programs. That move ruined any chance of building a political consensus with conservative lawmakers for highway funding increases.
Years later after those inaugural addresses, it seems to me that Greitens faces the same challenges for solutions that require the courage demonstrated by Holden and Carnahan.
The transportation problems raised by Holden have grown much worse over the years to the point that the Transportation Department now acknowledges it lacks funds to fully maintain the state's highway system.
So far, the solutions are politically dangerous -- raise the motor fuel tax that voters might rebel against, implement toll roads that voters rejected years ago or turn over minor state roads to counties that likely would raise a fire storm of opposition from local officials.
The failure of the legislature to meet its goals to assure equitable funding for public school children has gotten worse since Carnahan's campaign for an education tax increase.
In fact, the last legislative session effectively gave up and repealed its legal funding goal designed to eliminate spending disparities between kids in rich school districts versus lower-income districts.
Higher taxes, reduced educational expectations, consolidating more than 500 school districts or diverting public funds into private education are among the ideas that have been proposed. All carry political risks.
Education-funding problems are part of a much larger issue raised by recent tax cuts that could further restrict state government's ability to fully fund other basic government services.
The initial actions of the Greitens' team since his election have not displayed governmental courage to address the details of those issues.
The governor-elect has not held an open news conference to talk about his plans.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he's imposed a gag order on his transition staff from talking about their plans.
According to the Kansas City Star, he did not respond to "numerous requests" for comment on school funding.
In Greitens' defense, it may be than an inaugural address is not the time for boring governmental details, whether politically dangerous or not.
Instead, maybe it is just a time to celebrate electoral victory and talk in generalities that can inspire both citizens and legislators.
After all, a few weeks later, the new governor will present his agenda to the legislature in the formal State of the State address.
Yet, in recent years governors have turned even that speech into political theater rather than a detailed policy discourse.
From a serious daytime talk to legislators, it's morphed into an evening, live state-produced TV event of a well-rehearsed speech.
That's another opportunity for courage. Will Greitens forgo the opportunity for self-serving, prime-time, political theater to return the State of the State address into a substantive policy presentation for a legislative audience?
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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