Mo. governor candidates focus on economy in debate

Sunday, September 23, 2012
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, left, and Republican challenger Dave Spence take part in a debate between candidates for Missouri governor Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican contender Dave Spence painted different portraits of Missouri's economy during their first debate Friday, with the incumbent pointing to improvements and the challenger arguing that the recovery is languishing.

Economic development and job creation has been a key issue so far in Missouri's governor race, and it arose several times Friday.

Spence said Missouri needs to be aggressive and called for limiting liability lawsuits and making Missouri a "right-to-work state," in which union dues cannot be collected as a condition of employment. He said Missouri is at the "bottom of the barrel" in many economic measures and that it's time to replace the state's leader.

"I feel like we're running into an iceberg in this state," Spence said.

Nixon became governor in 2009 and is seeking a second four-year term. He defended his record and pointed to efforts to boost the state's automotive industry while touting recent development plans by automakers. He also pointed to an increase in state payrolls last month and said that Missouri businesses are exporting more products.

"We're beginning to make progress," Nixon said. "It's built on a solid, sold rock of fiscal discipline, holding the line on taxes, focusing on industries where we can make a difference."

State employment figures released this week show Missouri's nonfarm payroll increased by almost 18,000 jobs in August, but that the state's civilian labor force -- which counts the number of people both employed and out of work but actively seeking a job -- declined by nearly 11,000. In August, Missouri's unemployment rate was 7.2 percent; the national jobless rate was 8.1 percent.

About a half-hour after the debate ended, the state Department of Economic Development reported that last month's job gains exceeded all but two states.

The gubernatorial debate was sponsored by the Missouri Press Association and held at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia. Libertarian candidate Jim Higgins also participated.

The leading candidates sharing the stage Friday come from different backgrounds.

Nixon, 56, repeated an anecdote from his childhood about answering phone calls from constituents for his mother, a school board member, and his father, the mayor of DeSoto. Before becoming governor, Nixon spent a record 16 years as Missouri attorney general and served in the state Senate.

Spence, 54, is a political newcomer and stated several times during the debate that he is not a politician. Spence stepped down last year as president and CEO of Alpha Packaging, which he bought in 1985. He also served as the chairman of Legacy Packaging and was on the board of St. Louis-based Reliance Bancshares when it decided in early 2011 that it couldn't repay $40 million from the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Spence sought to highlight those biographical differences, calling Nixon a "career politician" who is beholden to plaintiff attorneys and labor unions and charged that the governor's office is for sale.

Nixon responded: "People know how independent I am."

Besides the economy, the gubernatorial candidates will have to combat issues such as funding for higher education after recent budget cuts in state aid for colleges and universities. The schools this year are slated to get about 12 percent less than in the 2009-2010 school year.

Nixon said Missouri has expanded access to merit-based Bright Flight scholarships and "A-Plus" scholarships for community colleges. He said state government also has made strategic investments in higher education, such as recently announced grants to help educate more nursing students.

Spence said he would fight to restore recent years' budget cuts, calling it a matter of setting priorities.

Neither candidate supports a November ballot measure to increase state cigarette taxes from the national low of 17 cents to 90 cents, and then use the funds for education and tobacco prevention programs. It is expected to generate between $283 million and $423 million annually -- half to go to public schools, 30 percent to higher education and 20 percent to tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Nixon said a tax increase is not the proper way to fund higher education, but that voters should get to decide on the initiative. Spence said he does not support any tax increases right now.

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