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Nixon looks back at public career

Nixon looks back at public career

December 18th, 2016 by Bob Watson in Missouri News
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon reflects on his time in public service at his state Capitol office in Jefferson City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon reflects on his time...

Photo by Shelby Kardell /Fulton Sun.

In just over three weeks, Jay Nixon will leave public service and, again, become a private citizen.

After eight years as Missouri's governor, 16 as state attorney general and another six as a state senator from Jefferson County, Nixon will turn the governor's office over to Republican Eric Greitens on Jan. 9.

"I have had the opportunity to serve in all three branches of government," Nixon said in an interview last week in his Capitol office. "In all of those things, I think that I have tried to be sincere, impassioned for the particular cause I was involved in.

"But I've always, I think, respected other people, and I've tried to always take the high road — especially in this job."

Although critics often accused him of playing politics with the issues he pursued and with the bills he signed or vetoed, the governor told the News Tribune: "I've not been one who has been a bark-back-and-forth on the quick political quip.

"And I think that has paid great dividends for me, in the long run."

Nixon succeeded Matt Blunt in January 2009.

Looking back on his eight years in the state's top office, Nixon said three main things stand out about the way his administration has worked.

"The first of those — just because of the timing of the way things happened — is fiscal discipline," Nixon said. "I had to withhold $753 million out of the first year's budget (because) we were in the middle of a recession.

"We've had to do a lot of things to keep that AAA credit rating and spend an incredible amount of time literally grinding through, 'How do you downsize government in a most positive, humane way?'"

The AAA credit rating is the top level for three different financial ratings services, and Missouri has kept it since Warren Hearnes was governor in the late-1960s and early '70s.

It means better interest rates for bond sales and other government financial transactions and can benefit local governments and school districts, as well.

The second important issue, Nixon said, was focusing on "building an economy for the future," starting with education improvements.

Different groups see that effort in different ways, and some have argued Nixon and his Democratic administration haven't done enough.

But, the governor said: "There's a 36-percent increase in four-year college graduates, and 44-percent increase in two-year college graduates since I've been governor.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in education, (and) one of the reasons why is I've been focused on making college more affordable."

Several times during his eight years in office, the governor negotiated deals with Missouri's public college presidents to increase funding in exchange for the schools freezing their tuition rates.

"We're No. 1 in the country in keeping costs down in our public colleges," he said, noting the state also expanded the A+ Program started in the 1990s and raised the amount of state money for high school graduates to get college scholarships.

"The bottom line is education's the best economic development tool there is," the governor said, repeating a line he used in many speeches over the last eight years.

And the third major focus has been disaster-preparedness — particularly after 2011, the year of ice storms across southern Missouri, a major snow storm that closed Interstate 70, flooding along the lower Mississippi River that led the Army Corps of Engineers to blow up a levee and flood Missouri farmland, and tornadoes in St. Louis and Joplin, where more than 160 people were killed in the most-powerful type of tornado possible.

"The work we had done to include our faith-based community in that gave us a response that was not just a good emergency response," Nixon said, "but a good rebuilding. I'm extremely proud of those communities."

He noted the governor's office deals with many issues each day, so citing a top three always is difficult.

Nixon said his success was based partly on coming into the office with a great deal of support, as many who'd been with him in the attorney general's office became part of his administration.

He often talks about working in a bipartisan way.

But, the governor said, "I kind of come at this job almost nonpartisan. I just have not spent a great deal of time focused on the minutia of partisan politics."

Over the years, critics have complained about the amount of time Nixon has spent traveling around Missouri, as well as the costs of using an expensive jet the Highway Patrol bought several years ago.

"I've not just governed by sitting in this office," Nixon said. "I've tried to get out and see people, and I think that has helped get the advice of Missourians, as I've travelled.

"I've gotten a lot of good ideas from people all over the state."

Four years ago, as he was preparing for his second term as governor, Nixon said he read a short biography of all of his predecessors.

"And when I finished those, a couple of things jumped out," he said. "One is sometimes you make history; sometimes history makes you.

"You don't always get to choose the field you're playing on in public service."

While economic issues defined his first term, Nixon said, "The second term, I had a little more open room to run."

The state made numerous improvements in mental health — including the ongoing project to rebuild the Fulton State Hospital.

His second term also saw the state expand its focus on parks and the outdoors.

Throughout his two terms, Nixon, a Democrat, worked with a Republican-led Legislature and complimented several of those leaders, including current House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, and current Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, who was House speaker when Nixon took office in 2009.

"Ron Richard and I have always gotten along very well," Nixon said.

His disappointments include the failure "to come to a solution on transportation and we need to as a state," the governor said. "I didn't think we got tax credits reined in as well as we could have."

Nixon and his wife, Georganne Wheeler Nixon, are moving to University City, and the governor is taking a job with a Clayton law firm.

"(Jefferson City) has been a wonderful community for us," he said. "Georganne is from here — it's with a heavy heart that we're leaving.

"People embraced us when I came here as a young attorney general. People have been friendly, nice, helpful — this is a great community."