The fallout from state Rep. Rod Jetton's outburst during Gov. Bob Holden's State of the State speech overshadows far more crucial concerns.
Born in DeSoto, Mo., Jetton's childhood involved moving frequently as his father, a Baptist minister, went from church to church. He graduated from Charleston High School. Thanks to a cross country and track scholarship, he graduated from Southwest Baptist University (four-year letterman and team captain) in Bolivar, Mo. He served four years as an infantry officer in the Marines and was involved in operations in Bosnia and Somolia. He started a real estate business in Marble Hill with his father-in-law and was elected the youngest county commissioner in Missouri. In 2000, he was elected to the Missouri House and was re-elected in 2002.
Jetton has quickly made a mark in the Missouri House where he has risen to the No. 2 leadership position, speaker pro tem.
Jetton: no frills
There are few politicians who are more plain-spoken than Jetton. His face-to-face conversations, his contributions to floor debate, his reports to constituents in the 156th District -- all are marked by a level of bluntness and sincerity that is refreshing in a political era of carefully worded utterances aimed at offending no one.
So it was no surprise that Jetton was the only legislator listening to the State of the State address -- perhaps the only one in history -- to speak up when he more properly would be expected to listen quietly.
Governor Holden, meanwhile, is an astute politician whose Ozark edges belie his shrewd sense of political timing and invective.
The governor was born in Kansas City but grew up on a farm near Birch Tree, Mo. His early education was in a one-room schoolhouse followed by a political science degree from Southwest Missouri State University. He attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has served in the National Guard.
Holden's political career began in 1976 as an assistant to State Treasurer James Spainhower. He represented a Springfield, Mo., legislative district in the Missouri House from 1983 to 1989, and was an administrative assistant to U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt until his successful 1992 bid for state treasurer.
Holden's partisan vigor
Since becoming governor in 2001, Holden has pressed the aims of his Democratic Party with a partisan vigor that matches -- or even exceeds -- the political polarization of the past decade.
In the relentless pursuit of his objectives, Holden has been unwilling to back down or compromise on many issues favored by the legislature, now controlled by Republicans. His mettle has been sorely tested, leading to several veto overrides last year -- yet another turning point in Missouri's political struggles.
So it was no surprise that Holden was the governor who would face down Republican legislators assembled for the traditional joint session to hear the State of the State address and budget message.
Holden's style is not one of persuasion. His tendency is to skip jawboning and go straight for the jugular. And that's exactly what happened as he spoke on Jan. 21.
The governor not only pressed his case, but he also got careless with the facts. And the mix of misinformation and the accusatory attack on Republican legislators must have been beyond bearable for Republicans. But the GOP side of the packed House chamber listened in traditional silence -- until Holden blamed Republicans for cutting state funding for education.
'Release the money!'
Jetton blurted out: "Release the money, governor!"
He was referring to withholdings of money appropriated in the budget but put aside in case the flow of revenue fails to meet expectations. Every governor withholds a portion of budgeted funding as a prudent safeguard against faulty estimates and economic unknowns. But Holden ripped most of his withholdings from funds for elementary and secondary schools, the backbone of state-funded public education.
The gall that led to Jetton's outburst was fed by the knowledge that the legislature last year appropriated more money than had been spent on education the year before. And even with Holden's withholdings, more state money has flowed to public schools this year than ever before.
The governor was dead wrong. And Jetton wasn't going to stand for it.
There they were: two public servants whose style is to shove rather than nudge, blast rather than blather. The combination resulted in the fireworks of a public outcry by a legislator during a pause in the governor's speech.
Republican colleagues exploded in support of Jetton. The rest of the chamber was dumbfounded by the breakdown in protocol.
What happened during the governor's speech, however, is far less important than the message the governor continues to hammer: Republicans are scuttling public education .
Echoes of misinformation
Listen to school officials across the state who refer to "cutbacks" and "funding decreases" as they bemoan the financial plight of their districts. And in some cases they are speaking from the experience of actually receiving less money from the state, thanks to a complex and virtually indecipherable formula for calculating how much money any given district will get.
But even if Jetton displayed poor manners by lashing out during the governor's speech, he was dead right about state funding for education. It has not been cut. And since the Outstanding Schools Act of 1993, state funding for education has increased -- increased -- 85 percent, or about $2 billion.
If it takes a bold legislator to get Missourians to take notice of the governor's misleading and politically calculated pronouncements on education, then Rod Jetton has done the state a huge favor.