Gov. Mike Parson says his biggest success so far as the state’s chief executive is passing legislation that expanded Missouri’s workforce development program and repaired scores of bridges.
And after roughly a year and a half in office, he says there’s been little disappointment.
“I don’t know what the disappointment would be,” Parson said recently during a wide-ranging interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “Every day, I go to work. I get the privilege of being the governor of the state of Missouri. There’s been a lot of positive things happen in my first little over a year now of things we’ve been able to accomplish by working together.”
Since taking over the governorship after Eric Greitens’ resignation, Parson filled three statewide office vacancies and ushered a budget through the General Assembly.
But his administration has also run into some vexing policy issues, including a large enrollment drop in the state’s Medicaid program and a wave of violence in Missouri’s largest cities. And Parson has been under the national spotlight for how he’s handled abortion-rights policy — including signing into law a measure that bans the procedure in most instances at eight weeks of pregnancy.
Parson made enhancing workforce development the centerpiece of his State of the State speech — and legislators ended up delivering a wide-ranging package to his desk. That included setting up a scholarship program for adults to go to community colleges and a “deal-closing fund” to entice businesses to come to the state.
That legislative proposal also included incentives to have General Motors expand its Wentzville plant. While Parson doesn’t have any specific announcement about that company’s plans, he added he thinks “there’ll be exciting news on the way.”
“I think there’s going to be an opportunity there,” Parson said. “When we talk about that General Motors plant, you also have to put in there the other 1,200 suppliers from across the state of Missouri.”
Getting that workforce development bill past the finish line wasn’t without conflict, as a number of lawmakers derided the effort as corporate welfare. And members of both parties have expressed concern that the company won’t retain as many jobs as promised.
For his part, Parson doesn’t agree with right-of-center critics of his workforce development agenda.
“But the bottom line is what is the end result of the money you’re investing in there?” Parson said. “If you’re going to put x number of dollars in an industry or in a business or those incentives, what do you get back in return?”
After the failure of a gas tax hike in 2018, Parson rolled out a bonding plan to repair or replace more than 200 bridges throughout the state. The final product was the first time in recent memory that general revenue dollars, as opposed to direct funds like gas taxes, paid for transportation projects.
But even backers of that plan conceded it wasn’t a long-term solution. And Parson said the conversation about where to get money for transportation will have to continue.
“And I don’t know what those revenue streams are out there. You’ve got [internet sales taxes] out there, you’ve got other ways that you might be able to utilize for funding streams,” Parson said. “And I’m not saying that’s the plan. But I’m saying the problem doesn’t go away simply because we did bonding of bridges across the state of Missouri.”
One of the big hurdles is that any significant tax hike for transportation requires a successful statewide vote. And Missouri voters rejected a gas tax increase and a 2014 sales tax hike.
“What the voters are basically telling you like last time, they said, ‘Look governor, you and legislators need to find out some solutions,’” Parson said. “Which means thinking outside the box.”
Roughly 120,000 people, most of them children, have been dropped from Missouri’s Medicaid rolls since the beginning of 2018, either because the state removed them or they didn’t re-enroll. Parson said his administration is committed to making sure that people who qualify for the program get health care access.
“If there’s children out there that need to be on the system, we want them on the system,” Parson said. “If there’s seniors out there, we want them on the system. But everybody that’s on there that shouldn’t be on there, you’re taking away from the people that really need it. And what we’re trying to do is clean that up — and until we get that fixed and until we get it cleaned up, it’s going to be difficult to move forward.”
Meanwhile, a well-funded effort is underway to place a measure on the 2020 ballot to expand Medicaid. That proposal is receiving backing from some powerful and well-funded institutions, including the state hospital association and Washington University.
Asked whether it would be wise for the General Assembly to pass Medicaid expansion next year so lawmakers can have input on how it would work, Parson replied: “I think that’s going to be an issue that the Legislature is going to have to pick up and see if they want to do something on that.”
Parson also rolled out a plan earlier this fall that includes placing Missouri State Highway Patrol officers on St. Louis highways to curb violent crime. And lawmakers may be working on more permanent solutions when they return to Jefferson City in January.
The governor said that it may be good for lawmakers to examine ways to prevent people with felony convictions from getting guns. He also suggested laws to protect witnesses of violent crime and to enhance mental health care services.
“But I’ve stressed this many times: The problems of violent crime we have in the state of Missouri, it’s not going to be fixed quickly,” Parson said. “I think the only way we’re going to fix it is if we all work together. And that means the cities, the counties, the state and the federal government.”
What Parson does not expect is for the GOP-controlled Legislature to approve major restrictions on guns.
“When you start talking about guns in the state, the division we’ve got in this state, I think it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “Do I think you can do some other things around that? I do. But I think to do some sort of gun control would be difficult.”
He also said that a longer-term solution would be a more robust investment in early childhood development programs.
“I think that’s one of the things we’ve been trying to focus on, trying to figure out how we’re going to get those services — how we’re going to do that,” Parson said. “And again, how we’re going to pay for it. But I’m going to tell you in the long term, the cheapest thing you can do is to work with these kids as to what we’re dealing with today. Because what we’re dealing with today with violent crime is so expensive.”
Few other issues that Parson encountered thus far elicited more national attention and controversy than abortion.
Parson’s administration is locked in an acrimonious legal battle with Planned Parenthood about the state’s last abortion clinic. And abortion rights supporters were outraged Parson signed legislation barring the procedure in most instances at eight weeks of pregnancy.
The ban is currently being litigated in court, and Parson expects the judiciary to have the final word about how far Missouri can restrict abortion rights.
“The people who believe in the pro-life, they’re pro-life. The people that believe in pro-choice, they’re pro-choice. The end of the day, this whole issue will be decided in the courts, no matter what we do here.”
One thing that will loom large over next year’s legislative session is the 2020 election — which will feature Parson running for a full, four-year term. He’ll likely square off against state Auditor Nicole Galloway, whose candidacy has excited the state Democratic Party.
Oftentimes, less gets done in the Legislature during election years. But Parson contends he’s established strong enough relationships to avoid major roadblocks.
“I think the relationship we have with legislators that we have on both sides of the aisle, we’re still going to move things that are good for Missouri forward. I believe that,” Parson said. “And I believe you’ll see that this year at the end of the session.”
Whether Parson gets to continue as governor after 2020 may depend on whether Missourians still approve of President Trump, who has already endorsed Parson.
“The president has his agenda to do on the national stage,” he added. “But really my whole focus has been, since I’ve come out of the Army to come back to Missouri, my focus is, ‘How do I make Missouri better?’”
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