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Capitol Perspectives: State of the State: From Policy to Theater

Phill Brooks
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UPI/Bill Greenblatt

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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Sitting in the House press gallery listening to Gov. Jay Nixon’s State of the State address, I began thinking back to about 30 years ago.

It was January 1981 when then-Gov. Kit Bond delivered his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly.

Like today, Missouri was facing deep cuts in state spending growth. Like today, state government spending had grown at a rate that officials clearly knew could not be sustained. Like Nixon, Bond was facing a legislature dominated by the opposition’s political party.

But the similarities between now and 1981 end there. State of the State addresses have evolved to something quite different from what Bond and earlier governors of his era had presented to the legislature.

Decades ago, the State of the State was a detailed policy presentation. Unlike Nixon’s address, Bond went at great length discussing the state’s budget problems and his spending proposals. He outlined a detailed legislative agenda. His speech was filled with specific facts and numbers as to the causes for the budget crisis, the steps he had taken and the further steps he recommended to the legislature. It was a detailed and complicated public policy plan.

In the past, the governor’s speech was followed by a news conference at which the governor’s proposals were explored even more in depth. Unlike today, bills containing the governor’s agenda were identified along with legislators who had agreed to sponsor the proposals.

In fact, for some of the earlier governors I’ve covered, the legislative agenda presented in the State of the State was not much of a surprise. There would have been any number of prior policy briefings with the governor, legislators and agency experts about what the governor would propose.

I do not intend to suggest that Nixon has departed from standard practice. Rather, it has been a slow evolution during several different administrations that has changed Missouri’s State of the State from a policy address to something akin to political theater.

Why the change?

One of major factor was moving the address from daytime into the evening. The evening schedule began with then-Gov. Matt Blunt in 2005 to attract a prime-time TV audience. Making the State of the State a TV performance fundamentally changed the nature and purpose of the State of the State.

It no longer is an address to legislators. It’s a speech to the general public and, of course, to the voters. The boring minutia of policy that legislators want to hear is not going to sell as TV performance for the general public.

In fact, for the last few years the State of the State has been so devoid of policy content that the House Budget Committee chairman has left the chamber just before the governor begins his speech so he can study the details of the budget documents delivered to legislators as part of the speech.

Some of the change from policy to theater can be attributed to former Pres. Ronald Reagan. With his State of the Union addresses, Reagan made an art form of introducing to Congress heroes and other private citizens with inspiring stories.

Missouri governors started following suit with, it seems, more and more of the State of State address consumed with personal vignettes. Nixon’s speech included six different personal stories individuals and families introduced to the joint session.

With an evening presentation, it’s too late for substantive policy briefings to answer questions and explore the details of the governor’s proposals after the speech. Instead, the next day’s news stories are pretty much restricted to information from the speech, a hasty review of the budget that reporters got that evening and reaction from legislators who know little more about the governor’s plan than what they heard from the governor’s speech.

In fact, just before Nixon’s presentation, top legislative leaders acknowledged they had no idea what the governor was going to propose.

As a result, formal reaction from the opposition party tends to be another speech that might have little relationship to what the governor had to say. That happened after Nixon’s speech. The formal Republican response actually had been recorded before the governor even spoke.

Maybe there should be two State of the State addresses — one for the general public and one for the legislators themselves, given only after lawmakers have a day or so to review the accompanying budget documents. I suspect that would go a long way to elevating the discourse in your state government.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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