Records obtained through a Missouri Sunshine Law request show Nixon traveled outside Jefferson City for 33 of 60 days while the House and Senate were in session through April 30. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle confirmed Nixon rarely, if ever, met one-on-one with them.
Democrats denied it was a problem. With the legislative session in its final week, Nixon traveled May 11 to the Kansas City suburb of Claycomo, pitching his tax break plan at a Ford Motor Co. plant. While he traveled more than 100 miles to the factory, the lawmakers who needed convincing on the plan's merits were 100 feet from his office. Republican House leaders blasted the governor for not working with them on the session's priorities.
"We've not known if (Nixon) has been in the building, because the governor has been irrelevant to the House," said Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, the House's speaker pro tem.
When Nixon did get involved in backroom deal making over the job creation bill in the session's final hours, the efforts ended in failure, as the Senate could not bring the issue to a vote.While the House debated the budget in late March, records show Nixon traveled to Fulton, Taney County, Lee's Summit and Jefferson County, handing out energy grants and making a speech at a community college.Nixon's office has spent more than $41,000 this fiscal year on travel, although a June 2009 Associated Press report revealed the governor's office passed travel costs off on other executive departments, too.
The governor's communications director, Jack Cardetti, refused to set up an interview with Nixon about the governor's travel. But Nixon did respond to KOMU 8 News' question about his Claycomo trip and other travels at a news conference.
"It's a big state, and the governor ought to get out and see that state," Nixon said. "Hate to break it to everybody, but not everything that happens in this state happens in the confines of Cole County. "We've got 114 other counties, 113 counties and a city, and I think it's important for a governor to talk to people who are going to be affected by legislation."
More than HoldenRecords show Nixon spent far more time away from the state Capitol than Gov. Bob Holden did in 2003, when the state faced its last major budget crisis. Holden's travel archives indicate the Democrat was away from Jefferson City for 29 of 69 legislative days, or 42 percent. Nixon was away for 55 percent through April 30, the most recent day KOMU 8 News requested in its Sunshine Law request.Former Gov. Matt Blunt's archives show he was away for a comparable amount of time as Nixon.
Blunt's office did not file specific travel itineraries with the Secretary of State, but those days that were included in the state archives show Blunt, a Republican, was away for 59 percent of the time the legislature was working in 2006, the same point in his term as Nixon is now. Travel effects unclear effect of Nixon's traveling on the legislative session is unclear.Interviews with top lawmakers on both sides of the aisle indicate Nixon rarely met with them over the state's $23 billion budget, the session's top priority.
It's the end result that matters, not the process, Nixon said. The legislature was able to trim $500 million from Nixon's original budget recommendation, which he announced March 11 needed to be cut because of a grim revenue outlook.
Lawmakers finished the process one week ahead of time. Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, the House's Budget Committee chairman, said he only met with the governor once over the budget. Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, confirmed Nixon never met with her individually. The House's Democratic leader, Rep. Paul LeVota of Independence, also said he never met with Nixon over the budget.
"We don't sit around thinking about what to do next," LeVota said about the governor's absence.
The governor worked more closely with the Senate on the budget. Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, the House's majority floor leader, suggested that was a result of Nixon's former career in the Senate. It may have been easier to work with a smaller body of legislators, said Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. Behind the scenes interviews indicate Nixon remained largely out of the spotlight, letting his budget director, Linda Luebbering, work quietly behind the scenes with budget leaders. Unanimously, they praised Luebbering's work.
"It was a positive experience, and I hold her in high regard," Mayer said.
"As far as I'm concerned, my questions got answered, and that's all I want. And I certainly don't need the governor to be answering them," said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
"I don't think the governor being out of the building has that much to do with our work.""When we talk the governor, we talk his staff," said Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County. 'Missed opportunity governor's successful strategy on the budget did not carry over into other areas. When he did get involved in a last-ditch attempt to get the job creation legislation, senators stonewalled the effort. At an end-of-session press conference, Nixon did not deny he was considering calling a special session to deal with Missouri's system of handing out tax credits. The legislature's failure was "a missed opportunity," he said.Lawmakers stripped out the main provisions of the ethics reform bill that Nixon, Democrats and Republicans called a key priority at the start of session after two former lawmakers were sent to prison on ethics scandals and former House Speaker Rod Jetton faced a federal grand jury ethics probe.
The final bill, which the legislature sent to Nixon's desk on the session's final day, does not include campaign contribution limits, a ban on lobbyists' gifts, or any barriers to stop the revolving door of lawmakers becoming top lobbyists to persuade former Jefferson City colleagues.
"The bill is clearly watered down, and I'll review it carefully to see if it's an improvement over current law," Nixon said, when asked if he'd sign the measure into law.
The legislature also failed to pass several of Nixon's plans to downsize state government, which would have reduced the budget further. Lawmakers did not vote to merge the state's higher and lower education departments, and did not agree to cut two state holidays. Nixon confirmed he would have to make more budget withholds this summer, as the state prepares for a budget hole some in the statehouse say could approach $1 billion in the 2012 fiscal year. Nixon summed up the session as making "solid progress," despite his criticism of the legislature over specific bills.Tilley was more pointed.
"If he (Nixon) is honest with himself, I think he'd admit he should have been more involved," Tilley said.
Ben Wieder of Missouri Digital News in Jefferson City contributed to this report.