(AP) – Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon implored lawmakers to embrace policies that “foster healing and hope” Wednesday as he delivered his first State of the State address since the unrest that erupted over the fatal police shooting of a black 18-year-old in Ferguson.
Nixon acknowledged that the death of Michael Brown – and the sometimes violent protests that ensued – had focused the eyes of the nation on Missouri during the past year, prompting discussions about “race and equality, education and economic opportunity, law enforcement and the courts.”
“The legacy of Ferguson will be determined by what we do next to foster healing and hope and the changes we make to strengthen all of our communities,” Nixon said in a nearly 50-minute speech to a joint session of the House and Senate.
The Democratic governor called for an update to Missouri’s law on the police use of deadly force as he outlined an agenda that also includes an increase in funding for public schools, albeit one that would still fall hundreds of millions short of what is considered a fully funded system. Nixon also advocated for the consideration of a gas tax hike or tolls for aging highways, stronger ethics laws and a renewed call to expand Medicaid eligibility to low-income adults.
Nixon’s proposed $26 billion budget for the 2016 fiscal year would keep spending relatively flat compared with the current year, a carryover effect from revenues that fell significantly short of expectations last year. He also asked lawmakers to approve $353 million of repairs and renovations at the Capitol, college campuses, state parks and office buildings under a bonding plan that legislators previously authorized.
Nixon has been criticized by some for his handling of the response to Brown’s shooting – first for not acting quickly enough to quell tensions between protesters and heavily armored police in August, and later for not preemptively deploying the National Guard to troubled spots in Ferguson when a grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson was announced in November.
During his remarks Wednesday related to Ferguson, Nixon said there often is “too much fear and too little trust.”
“Some folks feel they have to choose sides: Them or us. Teens or cops. Black or white,” Nixon said. He added: “The truth is real and lasting change is only possible when we stand together.”
As a first step, Nixon encouraged lawmakers to “reform municipal courts,” something Republicans also have embraced, in response to complaints from Ferguson protesters and other St. Louis-area residents about cities that derive a large percentage of their revenues from traffic tickets.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said he also agrees with Nixon that Missouri needs to update its deadly force laws to be brought in line with U.S. Supreme Court precedent. The court had ruled in a Tennessee case a couple of decades ago that deadly force cannot be used against an apparently unarmed fleeing suspect who poses no serious danger to police or others.
Nixon said officials must recruit and train police who reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. And he implored lawmakers to “support policies that foster racial understanding,” create economic opportunity and strengthen failing schools.
Many of his suggestions received more applause from Democrats than from Republicans. But GOP lawmakers joined in a standing ovation when Nixon said he was proud of law enforcement officers.
House Speaker John Diehl, who delivered a Republican response speech, accused Nixon of poor leadership during the Ferguson events and pledged that legislators would investigate why the National Guard was not used in Ferguson on the night of the grand jury decision.
“Our governor failed to communicate his polices and fulfill his promises, and Missourians paid the price as Ferguson was looted and destroyed,” Diehl said.
Diehl said the Republican agenda includes removing “those who are capable of earning a living wage” from Missouri’s welfare rolls. He also pledged that lawmakers would pass a bill expanding the availability of charter schools and online schools for students in public schools lacking state accreditation.
Nixon’s budget plan includes a $50 million increase in basic aid for public schools. He said that could be boosted by an additional $79 million if legislators pass several measures to generate revenues, including expanding Medicaid eligibility under the terms of President Barack Obama’s health care law. But such proposals have failed in past years, and Republican legislators appear unlikely to pass them this session.
To fully fund Missouri’s school formula in 2016 would require a $482 million increase to the nearly $3.2 billion in basic aid that schools are due to receive this year.
Some education groups said a $50 million increase wouldn’t be enough to avoid cuts in certain school districts.
“This is going to create problems for our schools. … It could mean teacher layoffs,” said Mike Wood, the government relations director for the Missouri State Teachers Association.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he would support an additional $100 million funding increase for public schools.
But House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Flanigan said he has no target yet for how much money he hopes to provide to schools. He said next year’s budget likely will be lean.
“New spending is going to be tough,” Flanigan, R-Carthage, said.