COLUMBIA - Jobs and education took center stage at the Missouri Press Association's gubernatorial debate Friday morning.
Hundreds of journalists and campaign supporters looked on as Associated Press correspondent David Lieb moderated the debate among the candidates. Democratic incumbent Gov. Jay Nixon repeatedly mentioned Missouri's lower-than-average unemployment and consistent funding for public education. Missouri's unemployment rate in August was 7.2 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, versus 8.1 percent for the entire country. Republican candidate Dave Spence centered his arguments on jobs, saying Missouri would be able to fully address its problems once the state had consistent job growth. Libertarian candidate Jim Higgins said government in Missouri and the United States has gotten too large and that the state should turn some areas back over to the private sector.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Friday show Missouri added 17,900 jobs in August, behind only Texas and Florida. This represented a 0.7 percent increase in employment over the month, which tied Missouri for first in over-the-month job creation rate with Hawaii and Oklahoma.
Spence said the biggest obstacle to school funding is the state's unemployment rate, saying people on unemployment cannot contribute income tax revenue. Higgins said he would support the use of charter schools and school vouchers to allow parents to choose where their children go to school, measures he said would address both the achievement gap and school funding. Nixon and Spence both said they opposed vouchers.
"We shouldn't take public dollars and give them to private schools," Nixon said, while Spence said school vouchers would lead to "mass chaos."
Nixon said public schools have record levels of funding, while Spence said the state needs "more paychecks and fewer unemployment checks."
On the subject of transportation, Nixon said any discussions about new revenue for roads must involve members of the public. He said the gas tax is an increasingly untenable way to fund highways because cars are becoming more fuel efficient. U.S. Energy Information Administration data show motor fuel consumption declined by 7 percent between 2006 and 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Missouri charges a 17 cent per gallon tax on motor fuel. Both Higgins and Spence said the state needs to use its existing funding more efficiently, with Higgins suggesting MoDOT contract out some types of work. Spence expressed caution on passenger rail, calling it a great concept but asking who would pay for it. On the same subject, Nixon said Missouri should first eliminate slowdowns before brining passenger rail lines through the state.
The candidates expressed concern over how to address Medicaid. Higgins said Missouri should not expand Medicaid and should resist any federal mandates. He said abuse on both the medical and patient side of Medicaid is a major cause of funding problems. Spence said the best way to reduce Medicaid costs is to enact tort reform legislation and use Medicaid money judiciously. Nixon said he would work with politicians in a bipartisan way to find the best way to match the state's needs with requirements under Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
All three candidates expressed strong support for the Second Amendment. Spence and Higgins both said people have a basic right to self-defense, while Nixon called hunting and fishing "a big part of who we are as Missourians." The candidates also criticized the Army Corps of Engineers' policies on the Missouri river, with Spence saying, "Everyone I talk to who lives along the river is fit to be tied" about existing policies.