State of the State: Reasons for Hope . . . But More Reasons for Skepticism
Last night, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon delivered his annual State of the State address. The speech — part pep talk, part agenda setter — was nothing if not optimistic, which is good as far as that goes. Like New Year’s resolutions, SOTS addresses are meant to give at least a little hope to anyone paying attention that this legislative year will be better than the last. But just like New Year’s resolutions, big reforms, whether legislative or personal, too often turn out to be major failures without follow-through and personal sacrifice.
So with this hope, skepticism. It remains to be seen whether the governor will risk much political capital for the agenda he has outlined, particularly if his ideas are greeted with opposition in the Missouri General Assembly. And the governor appeared to concede as much last night when he talked about tax credits.
While we’re talking about government efficiency, let me make a related point. For the past three years, I have called for comprehensive tax credit reform. Some of you in this room stood with me on this issue. Others did not.
The consequences of this inaction are clear. Over the past four years, more than $2 billion in state tax credits have been redeemed. Effective tax credits are used to create jobs and grow our economy. But tax credits that aren’t delivering for Missourians must be retooled and reformed. We all know that dollars spent on tax credits are dollars we cannot invest in other critical priorities.
Once again, I ask you to pass comprehensive tax credit reform to get this spending under control.
One hundred and twenty three — that is how many words of the governor’s 5,814-word speech were devoted to the state’s budgetary equivalent of a billion dollar bunker buster. It is good that the governor even talked about tax credits, but the subject constituted just 2 percent of a speech that often detailed how the state is tightening its belt. That such a tiny amount of time was spent on highlighting such a huge problem is baffling and disappointing. But more frustrating, the content of those 123 words revealed nothing new, nor did they suggest any greater commitment to “getting it done” when it comes to tax credit reform. Says the governor, just do it. Or, you know, not.
That is despite the fact that ideas are bursting out from across the ideological spectrum on how to combat the tax credit problem. But whether the idea is blocking tax credit issuances (that is, the distribution of tax credits) or even going as far as the desperate step of unilaterally blocking tax credit redemptions altogether — as the left-leaning St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggests — there is growing interest to get a tax credit system that has spun out of control back in line so that our constitutionally-mandated priorities remain in order.
It is concerning that in the same speech where the governor paid brief homage to tax credit reform, he simultaneously, and at length, talked about new industry-targeted incentives under his “Missouri Works” program. Unless an appetite for legitimate reform develops in Jefferson City, Missourians are looking at not only “same old, same old” in the Capitol, but much “more of the same,” as the tax credit fiefdoms that have developed in the last decade fight off legislative incursions and new duchies get created for the next “big idea(s),” Aerotropolis included. (Yes, legislators may try to resurrect it.)
If state officials cannot get serious about a budgetary problem measurable not only in millions, but in billions of dollars, I am not sure they can get serious about much of anything. Gov. Nixon struck the right optimistic tone, as is required of these events, but when it came to the substance, the speech last night was woefully lacking. The state of the state could be worse, but if the governor’s speech is any indicator, Missourians should not expect it to get much better anytime soon.