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Parson's agenda: Bolster job development and find money for roads

After roughly six months as governor, Mike Parson is not only settling into the job — he’s charting out an ambitious policy agenda.

In a wide-ranging interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Parson laid out his priorities. Much of his agenda centers around developing jobs and finding more money for roads and bridges. But it also includes overhauling state programs that already require a lot of money — or have elicited controversy in the past.

Here are a few takeaways from the interview, which is scheduled to air Monday on St. Louis on the Air.

Former Lt. Gov. Mike Parson arrives at a prayer service before being sworn in as the 57th governor of Missouri on  June 1.

The scandal that ultimately led to Eric Greitens downfall broke in January. But Greitens didn’t formally resign as governor until the beginning of June, placing Parson, who was the state’s lieutenant governor, in a holding pattern.

Parson said being in limbo was difficult, adding that it’s “tough being the lieutenant governor, seeing everything that was happening in the state.”

“But you know, the reality of it was you had to start thinking ‘OK. What do I need to be doing right now to prepare myself for that date if it does come,’” He said. “And I think I really stayed focused on that and thought ‘OK, if I am called to duty, and if I am called to be the governor of the state, what am I going to do and how do I conduct myself now?’”

While Parson retained most of his predecessor’s cabinet, almost all of the former governor’s staff resigned after Greitens left office. That created additional challenges.

“When we walked in the governor’s office, there was empty desk after empty desk after empty desk. And it was just daunting,” Parson said. “I mean, you walked in there and it was just overwhelming. And you think ‘man, how are we going to make this go?’ We don’t have a legal team. We don’t have a public relations team. We don’t have policy people in place. So it was a huge task. But, you know, all that weekend we called people. And we called people. And we called people. And I was just thankful for people saying ‘yeah, I’ll come help.’”

Gov. Mike Parson greets attendees at a meeting at Cortex Innovation Community in June.

One recurring mantra of Parson’s governorship is his desire to improve the state’s workforce development. And one specific aspect of that goal is finding a state role in early childhood education.

Currently, it’s essentially local school districts’ responsibility to pay for early childhood programs. Parson said that may need to change.

“I think the state, at some point, will have to take a role in early childhood development — and understand that’s a long term goal,” Parson said. “Because if you start with a kid that’s 4 years old, it’s going to be 20 years before you reap the benefits of that. But I think the state at some point will have to figure out a revenue stream or make sure that’s an option to the schools. Just say, ‘hey, this is an option.’ And maybe it’s like kindergarten. You get a chance to opt in or opt out.”

Asked about whether that revenue source could, hypothetically, come from an increase in cigarette taxes, Parson replied: “I think you put everything on the table that’s out there, possibly.” He also said a recent U.S. Supreme Court decisionthat gave the go-ahead for online retailers to collect sales taxes is another possibility.

“That’s a stream of revenue. And you know how it’s going to be. Everybody’s going to want a piece of that,” Parson said. “And that’s really a tax that’s just making it fair for Missouri businesses to be able to collect that. But I’ll go back to the early childhood development side of it. We’ve got to figure out a solution for that. If you really want to change society for a lot of people, then it’s going to be with the kids side of it. We can’t just keep trying to fix problems with people, frankly, who are 60 years old. I just don’t think you’re going to change much there.”

Parson faced disappointment in November when voters rejected a gas tax increase for transportation projects.

He said he’s not terribly interested in making excuses for that outcome.

“I’ve heard all the reasons why it failed or why it didn’t pass: Because of the wording and all of this. You know, it really doesn’t matter at this point,” Parson said. “Right now, it didn’t pass. So the problem exists with infrastructure in this state. And we’ve got to find out solutions to that.”

Few people disagree that Missouri’s roads and bridges need more money. But there is contention over how to pay for it, as voters also rejected a sizable sales tax increase in 2014.

“I think you’re going to have to go back there and get a little outside the box on this and say, ‘OK, is there a revenue stream out there? Can you create a revenue stream — whether that’s bonding, whether that’s a separate revenue source on that?’” he said.

“But look, at some point you’ve got to do it. You’re going to have to fix it.”

Speaker of the House Rep. Todd Richardson.

Parson recently appointed former House Speaker Todd Richardson to lead the state’s Medicaid program. Even though Richardson does not have a background in health care, Parson said the Poplar Bluff Republican is determined to make the health care program for the poor and disabled better.

“I think he could have gone anywhere he wanted to go from speaker of the House and probably made a very comfortable living anywhere he went,” Parson said. “The key is that he came in and talked to me in the governor’s office one day. And Todd told me this: ‘One of the things I felt I failed to get done as a leader was to reform Medicaid in the state of Missouri.’

“And when I heard him say that, and when I saw the passion he had for really trying to work and fix this, I felt like it was an opportunity,” he added.

Even with the prospect of a ballot initiative, Parson stressed that he wants to make changes to how Medicaid operates before considering expanding eligibility. “First of all, to even go to expansion you’ve got to fix what you’ve got,” he said. “To expand it with somewhat of a failing system now just won’t work.”

Union leaders set up tables and booths at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall on Aug. 8, 2017 to collect notarized petitions to force a statewide vote over Missouri's right-to-work law.

One of the biggest policy developments of 2018 was the repeal of a right-to-work law, which barred unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues. Parson backed  that policy, but acknowledged it took a ‘thumpin’ at the ballot box.’

“That’s the only way you can say it,” Parson said. “It got beat bad.”

At least one lawmaker, Sen.-elect Eric Burlison, R-Greene County, introduced a right-to-work measure this month. Senate leadership has stressed that it’s not a priority for them this year, a sentiment echoed by Parson.

“I really want to stay focused on the two things we’ve talked about all the time. We get sidetracked sometimes with the other issues. But I’m going to go back to workforce and infrastructure,” Parson said. “Those are the two keys for the state of Missouri, the rest of this? We’ll just see what the legislature does and how time goes.”

As for whether he would sign a hypothetical right-to-work bill if it made it to its desk, Parson replied “you’ve got to look and see what is in that.”

“But it’s a tough answer for me to tell you today if it comes to my desk in some form or another would I sign it. I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure it’s the right thing for what we’re trying to do.”

St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum interviews Parson on Dec. 13, at St. Louis Public Radio's studios.

Greitens helped freeze the state low-income housing tax credit program last year, contending the incentive was inefficient and a boon for well-connected developers. Even though he was opposed to Greitens’ move, Parson says he won’t restart the tax credit until the legislature makes changes to the program.

He made it clear that if the General Assembly doesn’t act, he’ll make sure that the Missouri Housing Development Commission continues its halt on the state incentive.

“So at the end of the day, I’m going to have to say ‘how did we really reform this program — on the policy and regulatory side of it and the financial side of it?’” he said. “All of that’s got to come into play. And how do we even streamline the agency itself? We’re going to totally overhaul that, much like what we’re doing with the Department of Economic Development. You’re going to see major changes.”

Even though altering the low-income housing tax credit program has faced massive legislative obstacles over the past few years, Parson is optimistic.

“I believe in May, when we have another time for an interview, that we’ll be talking about how that reform took place,” he said. “I really believe working with the legislators, leadership, the industry, we’ve said, ‘look, this has got to happen.’”

State Treasurer Eric Schmitt, center, will become attorney general after Josh Hawley becomes a U.S. senator in January.

State Treasurer Eric Schmitt is slated to become attorney general in early January, giving Parson the opportunity for the third statewide vacancy appointment of his gubernatorial term. The governor says he could make his decision as early as this week.

“Hopefully we’re going to get something done on that by Christmas.”

Parson said he’s looking at candidates who have a business background and strong examples of leadership. He said he’s cognizant that he’s in an unusual position of appointing so many statewide officers in a short amount of time.

“Because at the end of the day, we’re probably going to have four statewide officeholders that have never been elected to that position by the people,” Parson said. “Now, most of us have run for office before. We have that in our background. But the reality of it is, I’m really focused on trying to find who are the best people for those jobs for the future of Missouri. That’s really what drives it.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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