Greitens: 'The people have spoken; a new direction has been decided'

Jan 10, 2017
Originally published on January 10, 2017 5:06 am

When Eric Greitens took the oath of office as Missouri’s new governor today, he ushered in an era of complete Republican control of the state’s legislative and executive branches. It’s an opportunity that many members of the GOP are relishing – even though some warn that the party risks taking all the blame if it can’t govern to Missourians’ liking.

After being sworn in as Missouri’s 56th governor, Greitens declared in a relatively short speech that “for decades, Missourians have talked about change. Now it’s time to fight for that change.”

Greitens was likely referring to the fact that for the first time in Missouri history, a Republican governor will serve with a GOP supermajority in the Missouri General Assembly. That means that the passage of a GOP agenda won't face obstacles, such as a Democratic governor's veto pen.

“This is the people’s house. And to those who would trouble this house for their own selfish and sinful gain, hear me now: I answer to the people. I come as an outsider, to do the people’s work,” Greitens said to hundreds of people assembled on the Missouri Capitol’s South Lawn. “And I know that the people do not expect miracles, but they do expect results—and we will deliver.”

Greitens predicted that “there are big fights ahead for big things," adding that "our new administration won’t back down because of political pressure or political correctness."

Greitens was sworn in at noon, in line with Missouri’s Constitution. Part of his swearing-in was drowned out by a B-2 Stealth bomber overhead. State Supreme Court Judge Patricia Breckenridge performed the ceremony. Before Greitens took his oath, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Treasurer Eric Schmitt and Attorney General Josh Hawley were sworn in. Like Greitens, the rest of the constitutional officers are all Republicans.

The GOP domination of statewide offices is a marked change for Jefferson City. Before November, Democrats held every state office except lieutenant governor. Now, Republicans hold every one except auditor. The Republicans and Democrats each hold one U.S. Senate seat.

This new reality could mean big policy changes. The governor promised during the campaign to sign “right to work,” which would bar employers and unions from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues. He also supports changes in state law to curb lawsuits, seeks to trim or eliminate state tax credit programs – and came out against taxpayer funding of stadiums.

Greitens also has pushed for curbs on lobbyist-paid gifts and for a longer period before lawmakers could start lobbying after they leave office. While Greitens did not mention ethics in Monday's short address, he did make it the subject of his first executive order, which bans gifts from lobbyists to state employees of the executive branch. Greitens' senior advisor Austin Chambers told reporters before the speech that the governor would bar members of his staff from lobbying as long as his boss is in office.

In his inaugural address, Greitens took note of Missouri’s past as the state where “the West was won,’’ where Charles Lindbergh began his historic plane flight across the Atlantic and where astronaut John Glenn’s space capsule was built.

He also lauded now-former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, for his gracious “peaceful transfer of power.”

And Greitens briefly choked up as he said the best crime-fighting approach is “a dad playing ball with his son.”

High expectation, high scrutiny

When Greitens ran for governor, most elected Republican leaders endorsed his opponents. Some were put off by Greitens’ contention that Jefferson City was full of corrupt politicians, especially since that charge seemed to include GOP legislators.

But since Greitens' victory, GOP lawmakers have been bullish about how he’s put together his staff. He has hired experienced and well-regarded legislative veterans, including former state Rep. Caleb Jones, Jennae Neustadt and Todd Scott. And he also won plaudits from rural legislators for appointing Chris Chinn to lead the state’s agriculture department.

“He’s bringing a lot of very good people into his administration,” said state Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake Saint Louis Republican. “Not everyone agrees on everything. But I think we have both solid knowledge of policy, solid knowledge of the process of how things work in the Capitol Building, and also the relationships with the legislators… that can be so valuable.”

Because of GOP control of the Missouri House and Senate, Greitens can enact pretty much anything that has support of GOP legislators. But it’s not out of the question that Senate Republicans may balk at banning lobbyist gifts or expanding the ban on when legislators can become lobbyists.

Still, state Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, said his House colleagues are getting to work early on those issues so they can smooth out any potential complications before the session adjourns in May.

“Being over in the House, I’ll never understand quite fully everything that’s going on in the Senate,” Cornejo said. “There are lots of times when the House passes a different version of a bill than the Senate does – that’s just part of the process. And like minds will get together at the end… and work their way through those issues.”

Voices of the opposition

Greitens’ election leaves Democrats in the Missouri House and Senate with substantially reduced influence. When Nixon was in office, they had an executive check in the form of a gubernatorial veto. With Greitens in charge and the Missouri Senate willing to kill Democratic filibusters more often, Democrats won’t have a lot of chances to stop big-ticket bills they oppose. 

“It’s going to be challenging to figure out where our leverage is at times,” said state Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia. “There’s a very good possibility on some of these major policy shifts that we’re just not going to have the votes to be able to stop it. But that being said, there are a lot of issues that aren’t necessarily partisan that don’t get as much attention … where we will be able to affect policy.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that Democrats won’t try to make their voices heard.  House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, pointed to an initiative petition effort to block “right to work.”

And it’s not out of the question that the public may not like what the Republicans have to offer.

State Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, served in the Missouri Senate the last time Republican had control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.  While the GOP was able to pass substantial policy initiatives from 2005 to 2008, this legislative success didn’t translate into political popularity. And now that Republicans hold all the power in Jefferson City, Engler said they will also assume the blame if the state’s fortunes take a bad turn.

“They’ll give us enough rope to hang ourselves – and that will be a problem,” said Engler.

But state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, doesn’t expect his GOP counterparts in the legislature to stumble. That is why, he said, it may be in the best interest of Democrats to work with Greitens and the legislature.

“If they screw up, then they know that all eyes are on them,” Franks said. “The Republicans are smart. They know that they have to work with us – and we know we have to work with them to get some stuff done. We’re not going to agree on everything. But I think they’re going to work a little harder to try and bridge the gap, a much-needed gap.

“Because I feel like they know they have to because they want to keep this whole slate like it is,” he added.

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