A high-tech economic development package, mandating insurance companies to cover children with autism and installing tougher ethics laws for elected officials are Gov. Jay Nixon's three top priorities heading into the 2010 legislative session.
And while some of the details differ, there appears to be initial bipartisan agreement on the broad underlying principals involved in all three areas.
On two of the issues -- autism coverage and ethics reform -- Republicans have publicly touted their support for similar changes. In early December, Nixon traveled the state with Republican Senators to push for autism coverage, which died in the House last year. And although at the Springfield stop, GOP House members were noticeably absent from Nixon's news conference, Speaker Ron Richard has indicated the legislation will get an early calendar slot in January.
While there's expected to be another tussle over re-instituting campaign contribution limits, the federal guilty pleas of three ex-lawmakers has fueled a emerging political consensus that some action needs to be taken to stifle corruption and cronyism in the state capitol.
"There's a lot of basic blocking and tackling in ethics that needs to get done," Nixon said in an interview last week. Watch a clip of Nixon's goals ABOVE.
Republican leaders in both chambers have pre-filed ethics legislation. And Republican Rep. Tim Flook has teamed up with Democratic Rep. Jason Kander on a bill that would boost penalties for "money laundering" in campaigns.
Flook, who also chairs a key house economic development committee, has indicated that creation of a biotechnology incentive fund -- which Nixon touted earlier this month -- would also be a top priority of his.
"We've got to have tools to compete with other tools, and in the high-tech area, we've got to get that bill passed," Nixon said.
A GOP legislative aide said the Senate is eager to work with Nixon "where we can agree," but added that the state budget would be where lines are drawn and more partisan fights ensue.
"A budget is always about priorities, especially in this tough year. We don't know his yet, and that's going to drive the session," the aide said, speaking anonymously, in order to talk more candidly.
But one Democrat who works in Jefferson City and bills himself as a Nixon supporter has deep concerns about the Governor's political position heading into his second year.
This veteran Democratic lobbyist, who regularly exchanges e-mails with this reporter, requested anonymity because of fears that public comments could hurt his dealings in the capitol and rub raw feelings among those in his party.
"Two polls showing the Governor polling in the low to mid 40's just a year after a smashing electoral route should raise some alarm bells among Nixon aides and supporters," wrote the Democrat, referring to SurveyUSA monthly tracking numbers.
While some on the left are carping about Nixon's failure to broadly expand healthcare to low-income residents, this Democrat said the Governor's main mistake was overpromising during the campaign.
"I don't think we have the money to do what the left wants so I am with Jay on that. But Jay made a big mistake assuring the base that he could do all these things when pretty much everyone in Jeff City knew the budget was going south. I am not with them on the issue. We can't continue to spend more and more money but I think they legitimately feel lied to," said the source.
Liberal lawmakers told The Notebook that they understand Nixon's practical budget constraints in a dour economic environment, but would like to see the Governor put more "skin in the game" on traditionally Democratic issues.
"I'd like to see him renew his effort on healthcare this session," said Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, a St. Louis Democrat. "I haven't heard a whole lot about that yet."
Sen. Jolie Justus of Kansas City, who calls her self a progressive pragmatist, said she often has to temper expectations of her constituents who live "in their own little liberal bubble."
"Are we impatient? Yeah. Would my district prefer to have a Governor that's not for executing prisoners? Yeah, they would. We don't have that kind of Governor," Justus said.
"There was no way Gov. Nixon was going to come in and do sweeping change," she went on. "I know Gov. Nixon spends a lot of time courting liberal constituencies, but I'm a realist. We're a red state with big blue bubbles on each side," Justus added.
Or as the Governor himself put it, "You've got to reflect your state."
Most Democrats acknowledge that economic priorities have to come before healthcare, but the Jefferson City Democrat said that he's heard repeatedly from other Democratic insiders that Nixon's economic development initiatives are driven by polling, conducted regularly by Nixon consultant Ken Morley.
"Many believe these programs can be very costly with little jobs to actually show because many of the jobs would have happen anyways. You also hear why should the state be favoring one industry over another," said the Democrat.
"Jay is saying we are doing good on the job front because we are below the national average (on unemployment). But if you look at this our unemployment rate is actually 31st so we are worse than most states. If you compare us to the surrounding states we really look bad. In your neck of the woods Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma are all more than 2 percent lowers than ours," he added.
Nixon dismissed a question that asked him to evaluate himself politically after his first year, but said that politics does not drive his agenda.
"While politics is involved in this job, I think people would be stunned about how little time I think about politics," Nixon said.
But the anonymous Democratic lobbyist lamented that Nixon's "obsessively" loyal and secretive staff is the most troubling part of the administration.
"I had a meeting with two people who have been working with Jay's office on an issue. They were frustrated with how the staff in the office has handled the issue. Not with the end result but with the level of competence, secrecy, and the "gutter politics" that was played," said the source.
"Just the perception that everything is about Jay and no one else. In this case they were mad at the Chief of Staff (John Watson) and the Policy Director (Jeff Harris). But I have heard negative comments about basically the entire staff," he added.
Nixon said that he's become a better listener during his first year and hopes to use that to his advantage going into his second. But this Democrat said Nixon should re-evaluate who he's listening to.
"The Republicans have focused a lot on (Jack) Cardetti. I think he was less than honest in the E.Coli matter but oddly enough he doesn't get as much criticism as some. I have heard from multiple people that the staff is worse than Holden's," said the source.
"If you know anything about the Holden administration that is a pretty tough on Nixon statement," he concluded.